June 28, 2021 - No. 62

Canadians' Demand for Status for All!

We Are One Working Class,
One Humanity, Waging One Struggle
for the Rights of All

Toronto, June 20, 2021

Internal Migration and Rotational Work in the Oil Sands - Peggy Morton

Canadians' Demand for Status for All!

We Are One Working Class, One Humanity,
Waging One Struggle for the Rights of All

Workers' Forum congratulates all the workers and advocacy organizations such as Migrant Rights Network and Migrante Canada who held successful actions across Canada on the occasion of June 20, World Refugee Day, to once again give voice to Canadians' demand for Status for All! -- for refugees, students, migrant workers and undocumented people. It is clear that it is thanks to the workers who speak out and organize for the affirmation of the rights of all that the truth of what happens in Canada becomes known and together we can advance the fight for the rights of all.

Workers' Forum deeply appreciates the stand taken by Migrante Canada that the call for full and permanent immigration status is a call for an end to a system of deadly racialized exclusion from rights, protections and dignity; that the fight in defence of the rights of migrant workers is not simply a fight to demand rights under Canadian laws based on colonialism but a challenge to the violent and unfair nature of this whole system; that we must join together and demand that Canadian laws and policies do not force more people out of their homes anywhere.

According to the United Nations World Migration Report 2020, there were approximately 25.9 million refugees globally as of 2018. Palestinians registered with United Nations Relief organizations accounted for 5.5 million of that total. While 25.9 million is a large number, it is less than 10 per cent of the estimated 272 million international migrants in the world in 2019. Out of a global population of 7.7 billion, it means one in every 30 people on earth is an international migrant. Economic insecurity is the leading reason for people leave their homes, in search of employment and stability. War, violence and oppression is second to economic insecurity. This phenomenon of hundreds of millions compelled to become international migrants is clearly an expression of a global social order that rains catastrophe down upon the peoples of the world. This is the creation, out of economic insecurity, war, violence and oppression, of a pool of workers to be superexploited, and that superexploitation is cruelly being called "mobility of labour" which is considered a Charter Right in Canada and a fundamental human right.

These are living breathing human beings, with legitimate claims upon society to affirm and guarantee their rights wherever they are, not just where they were born. This situation is also the face of a new world in the making, which is coming into being, of the workers of all lands who, regardless of place of origin, exist as one working class in whichever country they are living. Migrants, regardless of the status imposed upon them, are part and parcel of the main force for humanizing the social and natural environment. They are "essential workers" as we have seen in Canada during the pandemic. It is in laying claim to that which belongs to them by virtue of being human and advancing the fight for the rights of all that societies will come into being which uphold the rights of all.

In Canada, internal migration is also a significant problem. More and more, workers are forced to leave their homes to find work elsewhere in the country because their industrial and service sectors, their local and regional economies have been wrecked by global narrow private interests. We have to step up our work also on this important issue.

We are one working class, one humanity, waging one struggle for the rights of all and for a human-centred system everywhere that upholds the rights and dignity of all human beings!

Sudbury, June 20, 2021

(Photos: WF, Sudbury Workers Education Centre, Migrant Workers Action for Change)

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Internal Migration and Rotational Work
in the Oil Sands

Living quarters at an oil sands work camp North of Fort McMurray. (Narwhal)

Alberta has the largest fluctuations in internal migration from one province to another of any province or region, with people moving to Alberta during boom times and leaving the province when oil prices crash. Statistics Canada reports, "Since comparable data was available beginning in 1971/1972, Alberta and British Columbia have been the two primary recipients of net interprovincial migration in Canada. From 1971/1972 to 2015/2016, Alberta has gained 626,375 net interprovincial migrants, while British Columbia added 602,233 migrants."[1]

Internal migration to Alberta is strongly related to the need for workers in the oil sands and other oil and gas projects. Workers came from all over Canada and around the world as bitumen extraction grew 376 per cent from 2000 to 2018, creating a construction boom. Many came from the regions where the rip and ship forestry was in crisis. From 2004 to 2008 alone, the number of workers from other parts of Canada grew from 67,500 workers to 133,000. By comparison, approximately 59,500 Albertans drew a portion of their income from outside of the province in 2008 -- most often in British Columbia, Ontario and Saskatchewan.[2]

At present, more people are leaving Alberta than coming to Alberta from other parts of Canada. Even though production continues to increase, there are fewer jobs in the oil sands in both construction and extraction. But workers continue to "commute" to work in the oil sands as "rotational work" has become a permanent feature, not only for construction and periodic maintenance, but for year-round work in extraction and processing. Working on the oil rigs in conventional oil extraction has also always been rotational but seldom involved workers traveling from out of province or long distances. A "rotational worker" is defined as a worker who does not return to his or her permanent home at the end of each day's work.

From 2000 to 2014, the mobile labour force in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo grew nearly ten-fold to more than 50,000 rotational workers housed in more than 100 camps established anywhere from 20 to 100 or more kilometers from the nearest population centre, with some clustered around a nearby airstrip. While these numbers have decreased since the downturn in oil that began in late 2014, a fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) workforce many thousands strong remains core to the sustained operations and maintenance of established oil sands facilities.[3]

While many workers in the oil sands live in Fort McMurray as their permanent home, there are a large number whose permanent homes are far from the oil sands. Workers come from as far as 5,000 kilometers away. Those working close to Fort McMurray have temporary accommodation in Fort McMurray, but the majority live in work camps. Together, these workers are referred to as the "shadow population" of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo includes the "shadow population" in its municipal census, defined as people who live in the municipality for at least 30 days a year, but have a permanent home elsewhere. According to the 2018 census, there are 75,000 permanent residents in Fort McMurray, and a "shadow population" of 36,678 in Fort McMurray, of whom 32,855 lived in work camps. Fort McMurray's population declined by 10 per cent from 2015, following the wildfire in 2016 that destroyed thousands of homes. The "shadow population" has also declined by about 15 per cent since 2015 following the oil price crash. Those not living in work camps may live in hotels or motels, RVs or campers, rent a room or apartment in Fort McMurray, or even couch surf. The census is a snapshot in time, but does not identify how many workers actually come and go during the year.

A study conducted by PetroLMI in 2015 surveyed 12 oil sands companies with 26,874 employees. Ten of the twelve companies had rotational work arrangements, and the majority expected the rotational workforce to increase. In-situ extraction (where the bitumen is deep in the earth) is the fastest growing sector of the oil sands and is heavily reliant on rotational workers.

Most of the in-situ projects as well as newer mines are more than an hour's drive from the outskirts of Fort McMurray, and some are quite remote. There are estimated to be 100 or more work camps, which house from 20 to 1,500 workers each. The workers who cook and work in the kitchens, clean and maintain the camps also work on rotation, often with very long shifts. The Mayor and town council have called for many years for sufficient resources to provide services to this "shadow population," a demand ignored by the provincial government.

It is estimated that about 15,000 workers work in fly-in, fly-out projects. Most projects have their own private aerodromes owned by one or more monopolies, or workers fly to and from the Fort McMurray regional airport. A study conducted by a consortium of companies operating in the oil sands found that about two thirds of these workers live in Alberta, with five per cent in the Wood Buffalo region, and the rest mainly in Edmonton (25 per cent) and Calgary (22 per cent), followed by British Columbia (13 per cent), the Atlantic provinces (nine per cent), and Saskatchewan (five per cent), and a small number from Quebec, Manitoba and the Northwest Territories.

As many as 10,000 workers are involved in the annual scheduled maintenance known as shutdowns or turnarounds, many from out of province. The turnarounds require many trades, including pipefitters, boilermakers, carpenters (scaffolders), heavy equipment operators, insulators, and labourers. Work at one site usually lasts for about 45 days, and workers may work more than one turnaround. Shifts in 2021 were as long as 24 days with no days off. This year the turnaround at CNRL saw the largest workplace outbreak of COVID-19 in North America, with more than 1400 workers becoming infected, and tragically, two deaths.


1. Report on the Demographic Situation in Canada - Internal Migration: Overview, 2015/2016, Statistics Canada

2. Statistics Canada, 2011 National Household Survey, Catalogue no. 99-012-X2011033

3. Nichols, Applied Management, 2018; Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, 2018.

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