Thursday, October 6, 2011

Migrant workers in the tar sands

An interesting article was published a few weeks back in Just Labour. Nelson Ferguson’s “From coal pits to tar sands: Labour migration between an Atlantic Canadian region and the Athabasca oil sands” is an ethnography examining the “profound social and economic impacts on the communities of Industrial Cape Breton, while such mobile workers find themselves in a form of work organization which is increasingly precarious and contingent.”

Ferguson notes how Cape Breton is becoming an increasingly remittance-based economy supported by long-distance commuters. He notes the limited economic options many workers have and the impact of this arrangement on the personal lives of workers and their families. He also notes the community impact, such as the loss of a volunteer fire department because a large portion of the volunteer base is unavailable. At the same time, this phenomenon appears to be stabilizing population in the region, which is known for out-migration.

But the stabilizing effect depends upon the continued availability of migrant work opportunities. The adoption of precarious forms of work within the tar sands means this pattern is unstable and such workers can be without employment during an economic downturn. Further, contingent workers were forced to accept some of the costs of their contingency as employers discontinued travel funding.

-- Bob Barnetson

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