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.
The Queensland Supreme Court subsequently overturned the appeals court ruling anyway, saying last month that Drovers Rest did have the right to deny Karlaa a room, even before the law was amended.
Tougher limits on prostitution are also on the table in the state of Western Australia, where iron ore is excavated from its sparsely populated north. Proposed laws would limit the sex trade to a few designated areas and require self-employed sex workers to be licensed. No more than two such licensed prostitutes could work from the same premises.
John Scott, a criminologist at Australia’s University of New England, said that Queensland and Western Australia are tightening restrictions after a loosening of controls by Australian states that began in the 1990s.
Some say that a more open sex industry and even a legal brothel would be good for Moranbah.
Real-estate agent Marie Plahn sees a brothel as a better option than miners potentially spreading disease or impregnating women they meet in bars.
“Paying for sex is cheaper than child support if it resulted in that,” she said.
However, Roger Ferguson, a former deputy mayor and a motel owner also sued by Karlaa, said the Moranbah council would probably reject a brothel.
Miners often drive 190km to the nearest brothel in the port city of Mackay, a regional support center for mining.
Club 7 sits discretely on the fringe of an industrial estate on a cul-de-sac called Enterprise Street. Nearby, boilermakers weld day and night in aircraft hangar-sized workshops, repairing the giant dragline buckets that excavate coal-bearing earth, 45m3 at a time.
It was one of Queensland’s original legal brothels, built 12 years ago as the state was relaxing prostitution laws.
Manager Warwick Bumstead said all but one of the 60 sex workers are FIFO, working four to 10-day stints before flying home to distant cities. He said a typical “mattress actress” at his brothel makes between AU$5,000 and AU$9,000 a week.
A Club 7 worker, a New Zealander in her late 20s, said she is thinking of branching out to some of the smaller mining towns such as Moranbah, where she has heard she can make more money working on her own.
It may no longer be as lucrative as she thinks. Karlaa said the money is not as good or consistent as it was when she started coming to mining towns five years ago. It is not the new law, she said, but the economy: Hundreds of miners have been laid off as falling coal prices take some of the sheen off Australia’s mining boom.