Catering in the Australian outback

21 June 2007
Catering in the Australian outback

Heatstroke, snakes and demanding miners - it's all part of the job for one of Australia's biggest caterers. Nigel Bartlett headed to the outback to find out more

Few people understand what life is really like in Australia's desolate, barren and forbidding oute_SDHpback. This is a country that's larger than Europe by half as much again, and as big as mainland USA but with only a fraction of the population. And nearly all of Australia's 20 million people live on the coast, so when they use the word "remote", they really mean remote.

Imagine running a catering operation where a site visit from headquarters involves two flights and then a road trip of several hours - much of it in 110˚F (45˚C) heat and on dirt tracks: or where the closest shop is 150 miles away (that's a long way to go for the daily paper.) Imagine working where water has to be trucked in every couple of days, where you generate your own electricity - and as for mobile phone coverage, well, you lost that five hours ago.

Morris Corporation is Australia's largest wholly-owned industrial catering, accommodation and facilities management company, competing with its compatriot Spotless and international firms such as ESS and Sodexho. It specialises in serving remote locations: by and large the mining sites that bring to the surface the coal, gold, copper and other minerals that are fuelling Australia's resources boom. As well as running the catering, Morris looks after accommodation, cleaning, maintenance and pool-cleaning, even operating landing strips where the sites have them.

It has about 250 employees and 20 contracts in Australia, with turnovers ranging from a couple of million pounds a year to tens of millions. Contracts are generally for three years, with a further three-year option. Some are charged on a man-day rate - a term that's commonly used in the remote-site industry to cover the catering, accommodation and all other associated costs - while others are on a cost-plus basis, or cost plus a management fee.

One of its longest-standing contracts is at Glenden, in Queensland, where the company has been serving coal miners for more than 24 years. Its 30 staff at the camp serve about 7,500 meals a week to the 350 residents.

One of the most recent contracts is at Davyhurst, a Western Australian gold mine, 85 miles north of the nearest town, Kalgoorlie, which is itself 370 miles inland from Perth, one of the world's most isolated cities.

As Morris's group operations manager, Les Seaton heads up the mobilisation of many of the contracts. In the case of Davyhurst, this was a site in the middle of the desert that hadn't been in use for 18 months, and with a lead-in time of just 14 days after the contract was awarded.

"We had to get the staff together from Perth, Kalgoorlie and some from Brisbane, on the other side of the country, then set them up with training, occupational health and safety inductions and so on, and organise them all to meet at the site on a Wednesday morning, with our first meal to be served that night," Seaton explains.

Their arrival coincided with that of a semi-trailer truck carrying two 20ft containers full of supplies and equipment from Perth and Kalgoorlie.

"So, we get to site, unload the containers and put all the stocks away, clean the kitchens, dining rooms and all the bedrooms - none of which have been touched for 18 months. Each area has an office to be set up, then there's a recreation centre, also a bar, so you're setting up basically a new business from the word go on the first day.

"Those are big days," adds Seaton, who has carried out 70 of these mobilisations during his 17 years with the company. "I've seen several cyclones on mobilisation day, but there's only been one occasion where we haven't delivered on the day. We were there only an hour before a cyclone forced us to evacuate."

It takes a certain type of person to work at an outback mine site and, generally, sheltered city types need not apply. Many of the staff are recruited from the local town - "local" being a relative term, given that it can be up to 250 miles away - and others need to be aware of the challenges of working in remote areas. These include the heat, flies, dust, lack of entertainment and the problems engendered by the sheer distance from any form of assistance.

"Our managers have to be extremely multi-skilled," Seaton says. "They have to be good with computers, engineering, cooking, retail management, cleaning - everything. They need to be able to repair an air-conditioning unit, because if it's 110˚F and a miner can't sleep, there's going to be some aggro. If staff go off sick, you can't just ring up and get someone to come in for the morning and if the computer goes down, it's not as if an IT guy can just pop in."

Pay rates, meanwhile, are high to reflect the isolation, with many staff on mining wages, with no meals or accommodation to pay for while on site. "And what appeals to most people is that you may work two weeks on and one week off, so you've got a week on full pay at home," Seaton explains.

However, he stresses this is no easy ride. "Many of our chefs, for example, come from five-star hotels and some are looking for a cruisey lifestyle making big money at the mines. But you might get 500 people coming through the door to be fed at the same time, plus you have to really be on top of your game with HACCP procedures because of the extreme heat. You certainly work for your money."

As for the service it offers, Morris aims to create a resort feel for the miners and make life as bearable as possible for them.

"These guys are in the middle of nowhere and it's not very pleasant, no matter what anyone says," Seaton says. "The night skies may be beautiful, but day-to-day living in the desert, with the heat, the flies and the dust - there's nothing nice about it. So our main goal is to make sure they're happy."

As far as food is concerned, Morris does this with menus that include two hot dishes - such as Jamaican pork casserole or beef stroganoff - a salad bar, a roast of the day, steaks cooked to order, plus Healthy Heart options. Seaton estimates as much as 50% of the client work­force take up the Healthy Heart option, up from 10% two years ago, thanks to an education process it has been involved in with the clients.

"It's easy to be unhealthy in that environment, because a lot of these workers sit in their trucks or at their machinery all day and they don't get the physical exercise," says Seaton. "So all the mines we've dealt with have loved the Healthy Heart options and are keen to promote it among their employees."

On top of eating healthily, staff also have to drink healthily and are told they must drink up to 20 litres of water a day in summer. Dehydration once caused Seaton himself to be rushed to a hospital 185 miles away.

"I was helping unload the truck during mobilisation, when I just started shaking. Then each of your senses closes down. First, you can't hear, then you can't see, then you lose your balance and down you go."

Needless to say, he won't be doing that again. Among the many safety procedures in place, there are strict rules about driving off site. After all, if you break down, it might be days before anyone happens to pass by. So, any movement outside the camp must be reported by submitting a two-page form on where you're going, what vehicle you're travelling in, and whether you're carrying enough water and diesel fuel.

There must always be two people travelling together, and when you finally get to your destination, including if you're going home for your week's rest, you must let the mine know you've arrived safely.

Indeed, the biggest risk of injury is from vehicle accidents, because of the distances being covered along roads that are mind-numbingly straight. "At the end of their two-week shift, a lot of people used to work all day, hop in a vehicle and drive to the airport, which is often 125 miles away on dirt roads, and a lot of accidents happened that way," Seaton says. "Now we make them sleep on site and leave in the morning."

Hazards of the Job… venomous snakes

Occupational health and safety (OH&S) is clearly a big concern when you're so far from help. And it takes on a new meaning in a land that's home to six of the world's top 10 most venomous snakes.

"Snakes and spiders are a fact of life in the outback, and we take them very seriously," Seaton says. He explains that every site has snake charts on the wall for identification purposes. Staff have it drummed into them during pre-starts to look out for snakes and they're trained in what to do if they spot one - generally, that means walking backwards very slowly.

"In the winter, snakes will lie on a concrete path or in a doorway so they get shade from the wind as well as the heat from the pavement," Seaton says. "So you have to be especially wary coming out of your room, and housemaids have to look out for them when cleaning. I'm pleased to say we've never had one case of a staff member being bitten by either a snake or spider."

On one occasion, which was captured on a photograph, a chef found a Gwardar, or western brown snake, in a truck container being used as a dry goods store. Gwardars are listed as "very dangerous" by Australian Venom Research Unit, but fortunately the chef spotted it in time. "Luckily he'd kept his eyes open, because these things can be hard to spot with their camouflage," laughs Seaton. And while he might laugh now, he doesn't always find the subject so funny - Seaton himself has a phobia of snakes.

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