High pay doesn't ease Aussie miners' loneliness

KALGOORLIE, Australia — Ten minutes' walk from Australia's largest open-pit gold mine, 35-year-old driller Matt Brown swigs a beer in the bar of the Rock Inn Hotel and laments one of the biggest problems of the mining boom: a shortage of girlfriends.

"You get lonely," says Brown, who explores for gold and iron ore with Westralian Diamond Drillers Pty, based in the dust-coated town of Kalgoorlie, 373 miles from Perth. "Relationships are the hardest thing about mining."

The heartache in places like Kalgoorlie and the Queensland coal town of Glenden, where there are 23 unmarried men for each single woman, is a headache for companies like Rio Tinto Group that are trying to attract workers. The biggest commodities boom since the 1850s Gold Rush has sapped the supply of Australians willing to adopt Brown's lifestyle, even with wages that are double the national average.

To persuade workers to join, companies offer extras such as seven-hour, round-trip flights to cities every few weeks, satellite phones to keep miners connected with loved ones, counseling services, and even flying in families for employees who keep mines going over the Christmas holiday.

"It's a wonderful life for many people, but for many people there's a crippling isolation," said Gervase Greene, a Perth-based spokesman for Rio Tinto's iron-ore operations. "You've got to think outside the square to access workers and keep them in the workforce. There's still a labor shortage."

Higher labor expenses are raising expansion costs, Rio Tinto, the world's second-largest mining company, said this month after reporting first-half profit that missed analysts' estimates. The company's workforce more than doubled in five years to 76,894 at the end of 2010. Australia's unemployment rate was 5.1 percent in July, almost half that of the United States, Bloomberg data show.

Miners' wages have risen 33 percent in the past five years in Australia, to $2,222 a week, or more than double the national average, according to data released Aug. 18 by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. That's almost twice as much as miners in the U.S., who are paid an average of $1,236 a week, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Among miners, the difficulty in holding down a relationship is one of the factors driving demands for further pay rises, said Stephen Smyth, a Queensland-based president in the 120,000- member Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, which is organizing strikes this month at BHP Billiton mines.

Tim Douglas, a mining engineer with Macmahon Holdings, said his job is incompatible with a long-term relationship. He works eight-day stints at Rio Tinto's Argyle Diamond Mine in the East Kimberley region mine with six-day breaks in Perth, a 3 1/2-hour flight away.

"You've got to pretty much give up your life," said Douglas, 24, who split up with his girlfriend in February. "A lot of my friends have been eyeing some quick cash in the mines, but it's not all it's cracked up to be."