A lone woman checking into a motel in the Australian mining town of Moranbah can expect some blunt questioning from the owners: “Are you a working girl?”
Turning on a heel and storming away indignantly will be taken as an admission to prostitution.
“That sort of reaction is really positive proof as far as I’m concerned,” said Joan Hartley, the 67-year-old owner of the Drovers Rest Motel and champion of motel operators who want to rid their businesses of sex workers cashing in on a mining boom.
Moranbah in the coal-rich Bowen Basin is part of the new landscape of Australian mining. Workers are increasingly leaving their homes and families for weeks on end to earn big money in distant mines in the Outback. It is a workforce known as fly-in, fly-out, or FIFO for short.
Where the FIFO miners go, the FIFO prostitutes follow. With miners earning A$110,000 to A$160,000 (US$100,500 to US$146,000) a year, many sex workers find working the remote mining towns more lucrative than the economically moribund cities in which they live, despite the travel costs and a recent slowdown that has seen the mothballing of some inefficient mines.
Not everyone in small-town Australia has welcomed the sex workers. Though prostitution is legal nationwide, the two main mining states — Queensland and Western Australia — have promised or passed laws restricting their activity. Their arrival has fed into broader fears that transient workers — miners included — and their urban values pose a threat to a close-knit, rural way of life.
Moranbah, a town in Queensland, is one such place. Its population of 11,000 doubles if the FIFO miners housed in nearby camps are counted. Until a recent slump in coal prices, the 42-year-old town was one of the fastest-growing places in Australia.
It also remains the kind of place where people make eye contact with passersby and smile. Where everyone knows everyone else’s business — and many of their secrets.
So Hartley was suspicious of a regular guest, an attractive woman in her early 40s, at her modest, cement-brick Drover’s Rest Motel.
The guest claimed to be an interior designer, but cleaners once counted 10 used condoms inside a tied-up, translucent plastic garbage bag left in her motel room trash can.
The final evidence came in June 2010 when the woman, who worked under the name Karlaa, was given a room with a door that could be seen from reception.
Hartley said the first client, a spotty-faced youth, arrived at 11:45am, half an hour after Karlaa checked in. The men kept arriving all day and into the night.
All were well behaved and well presented — no grimy work clothes or coal-blackened faces, said Hartley, who added that sex workers reduce the rate of sexual violence and address some of the “disharmony” created when miners are separated from their home communities.
Still, when Karlaa checked out, Hartley told her never to return.
Karlaa, whose real name has been suppressed by a court order, sued the motel under the Queensland state Anti-Discrimination Act, which bans discrimination against sex workers. She demanded AU$30,000 for stress, anxiety and lost earnings.
She lost before a state tribunal in 2011, but won on appeal last year. That ruling outraged hotel and motel owners, and the Queensland government responded by amending the Anti-Discrimination Act in November to allow owners to refuse accommodation to sex workers if there is reason to believe they plan to work on the premises.