As in many parts of the world, mining was a way of life for Doug Grey, a rigger who operated giant cranes at mines in the Northern Territory, Australia. In the 1990s, he helped construct the MacArthur River zinc mine, one of the world’s largest, where his son Rob got his first job. ‘I ended up driving ore trucks,’ Rob reminisced, ‘That was an awesome opportunity.’
Rob, it seemed then, had been born at the right time. He entered the labour market just as the worldwide natural resources boom was taking off, driven by the demand from the rapidly growing economy of China. Rob lived in Thailand for a time, spending little, and flying into his job in Borroloola.
About when Rob started work, Doug, the elder Grey, took a job at the Pilbara iron ore mine in Western Australia (WA), which paid about twice the average family income in Australia at the time. Both father and son were putting away substantial savings.
But by 2015 the natural resource boom was a distant memory, and the price of ore and zinc continued to plummet. Rob and his fellow miners were worried. ‘Everybody knew the economic downturn and commodity prices were a problem. We had that in the back of our minds.’ Their dream economy couldn’t last. ‘It was … obvious … that it was coming to an end,’ Doug said.
And it did. In late 2015, Rob got the bad news: ‘Two days into my break the general manager called and said, “thanks for your service, we appreciate it, we have to let you go.”’ His father, too, was laid off.
Driving ore trucks is Rob’s passion and he still hopes to get back behind the wheel. But that is not going to happen, at least not at the Pilbara mine where his dad once worked. Faced with collapsing demand, the mining company cut production, and also sought to drastically reduce costs. As part of this process, they replaced human labour by machines wherever possible. In the Pilbara, nobody is behind the wheel of any of their giant robot ore trucks that are now being ‘driven’ by university graduates with joysticks 1,200 km away in Perth.
The rise and fall of the Grey family’s economic fortunes is all about the workings of the labour market in the mining and construction industries in Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Their experience was far from unusual. The boom in ore prices made mining highly profitable, leading to strong demand for labour, which eventually dried up the pool of unemployed riggers and truck-drivers. Mining companies had no choice but to pay extraordinarily high salaries, and while the mining boom lasted, the companies remained highly profitable.
The downturn in commodity prices began in mid-2011 and unemployment began to rise. The Grey family’s good fortunes lasted another four years.