Seeking “good jobs” in the oil patch

How gender and race shape experiences of work in Alberta’s extractive industries
November 1, 2017

Women in Tar Sands

Illustration by Alisha Davidson

The province of Alberta, specifically its northern oil sands region, is often described as a frontier, a harsh landscape rich with potential for anyone tough enough or “man” enough to make it. The NDP government’s 2017 speech from the throne drew more than a little inspiration from this mythologized idea.

Real Albertans are people “who made the decision to call this northern slice of the continent their home and never looked back,” read Lieutenant Governor Lois Mitchell in the legislature on March 2. They value “hard work” along their “common journey towards a common future.” The story ends with a paean to the province’s fabled toughness worthy of a television truck commercial.

“Grit built this province. Grit will build its future. As a province, we have had our ups and downs. Though the world around us may be growing more uncertain, your government will remain calm and focused. Now is not the time to let our steady hand waver.”

This frontier theme depicts Alberta not as the mostly urban, well-educated province that it is, but as a collection of rugged individuals besieged by danger and uncertainty, carving out a living as best they can. Although many Albertans may identify with this idea, it is important to consider the less romantic realities of frontiers past, and the people who were—and continue to be—marginalized by celebrations of the hard-working (usually white) man.

The frontier is a colonial concept that, in Alberta as across Canada, purposely overlooks the fact that Indigenous peoples had lived here for a very long time before European settlers arrived; that Indigenous nations managed complex relationships with each other and the land to successfully maintain a subsistence-based lifestyle. Portraying Alberta as a wild, untamed frontier was a simple way to justify the expropriation of Indigenous lands and resources for white capitalist extraction.

In Alberta’s northern regions, where much of the extraction occurs, a “frontier masculinity” has developed that further limits who this mythology belongs to, according to social scientists Sara O’Shaughnessy and Göze Doğu. Writing in the 2016 anthology, First World Petro-Politics (University of Toronto Press), they describe the ideal frontiersman as “strong, rugged, self-sufficient—conquering the dangerous wilderness in the hope of striking it rich.” Masculinity here is defined against “all that is deemed incapable of enduring the tough conditions of the frontier,” that is, the feminine, urban and non-white. Women participate at the frontier by supporting men and their work.

Being self-sufficient through employment is of the utmost importance to frontier masculinity. Having a “good job” matters. Playing to that feeling, the term appears nine times in the NDP government’s speech from the throne, sometimes twice in the same sentence: “Alberta’s energy industry creates good jobs, and good jobs are the bedrock of a strong province.” But what is a “good job,” and who has access to them in northern Alberta?

Most jobs directly in the resource extraction industry involve working very long shifts (often 12 or more hours a day); workers are expected to spend days and sometimes weeks at work camps, away from their homes and families. Oilfield maintenance workers may find stable, long-term work at the same plant or refinery. But the nature of resource extraction means new areas are always opening to exploration and development, which requires a migratory workforce.

This seasonal cycle of working away from home may be manageable for some individuals. It can also put extra strain on families and communities, not only from the time apart, but because those left at home (often women) end up doing most of the cleaning and caring work.

As labour economist Andrew Jackson has pointed out, high income should be factored against job security, physical conditions, work pace and stress, working time, opportunities for self-expression and individual development, and work-life balance when determining the “goodness” of employment.

We should also consider how the Canadian job market has changed over the last half-century. Typical “good jobs” in the decades following the Second World War were mostly held by male breadwinners employed full time, with benefits, and under a single firm that was expected to need its employees indefinitely. However, neoliberal restructuring over the last four decades—the same period that saw women entering the workforce in large numbers—has made these stereotypical good jobs scarce.

In their 2003 article for Industrial Relations, Cynthia Cranford, Leah Vosko and Nancy Zukewich refer to the “feminization of employment norms” over this period, by which they mean increasing precarity, atypical work contracts, limited benefits and short job tenure, along with low wages, poor working conditions and higher health risks. Since even oil industry jobs fit this description, can we really call them “good jobs?” Are they good for some, but not for others? And when we consider “good jobs” should we also consider the impact they have on the collective good?

Direct jobs in the oil and gas and mining industry account for 6% of total employment in Alberta, according to a 2017 government profile. Only a quarter of these workers are women. In contrast, women make up 45.5% of Alberta’s overall labour force. Additionally, about four in five mining and extraction workers are between 25 and 54 years of age (compared to 68% of Alberta employees overall). These statistics portray the Alberta mining and extraction employee as either a young or middle-aged man, but that’s only part of the story.

Sociologist Sara Dorow describes the frenzied work environment of Fort McMurray as a “pressure cooker” in the 2015 anthology Alberta Oil and the Decline of Democracy in Canada (AU Press). Her research shows how much of that pressure is felt by women and visible minorities. Through their paid and unpaid work, these marginalized populations support and maximize men’s highly masculinized work in the oil industry, to the profit of those men, oil executives (who are mostly men), and shareholders of oil corporations (who, again, are mostly men).

While some women stay home with children to free up their partner’s time to work in the Alberta oil industry (90% of tradespeople and transport and equipment operators are male, according to Statistics Canada), other women and racialized workers are highly overrepresented in feminized and invisible service, retail and care work in the oil sands region. This gendered inequality of access to high-paying jobs means that men’s incomes in the region are more than double those of women.

Nannies in the region, often Filipina temporary foreign workers (TFWs), pick up the care slack in homes where both parents work. Outside of the home, other TFWs do much of the care and cleaning work that supports the retail, service and hospitality sectors in the Fort McMurray region. Of the more than 10,000 TFWs who came to Alberta in 2016, 6,484 worked in service sectors, including 2,868 in accommodation and food services.

By catering to the mostly male tradespeople in oil industry work camps, these temporary workers fill a critical social reproduction role in the accumulation process. Yet this type of employment is highly precarious. TFWs have limited access to citizenship rights and the labour market; their jobs come with few benefits, low wages and heightened health risks, and their work permits are tied to a specific employer. Labour researchers Jason Foster and Bob Barnetson point out the inherent discrimination in the TFW program in Alberta Oil and the Decline of Democracy in Canada:

“Migrant workers are predominantly from the Global South and are thus members of ethnic, cultural, and/or linguistic minorities. Providing migrant workers with fewer and/or different rights is a systematized form of racism that extends long-standing colonial practices of wealth appropriation by Western countries.”

O’Shaughnessy and Doğu find that Somali women working in Fort McMurray experience discrimination based on their gender, race, religion and culture. With some employers reluctant to hire them, many of these women end up working as cleaners. Those who find work in the industry may be pressured to change their clothing (e.g., to not wear long skirts) or remove cultural attire like headscarves while at work—pressure that can include threats of being replaced by men.

More generally, women who work directly in the oil industry face a catch-22 related to their appearance. O’Shaughnessy and Doğu describe how women who attempted to minimize their femininity physically (by wearing more masculine/neutral clothing and less makeup) or behaviourally (by acting less “bubbly” or friendly) were ostracized as “bitches” or as “mannish.” Women who maintained a more traditionally feminine look or personality were ostracized for being too “girly” or perceived as “not tough enough” to succeed in their job. Add to this a prejudice in the sector against hiring women, a significant pay gap between men and women, and the normalization of verbal, physical and sexual harassment, and the challenges faced by women are apparent.

In a 2016 report for the Parkland Institute, law professor Kathleen Lahey highlights the sizable and persistent income gap between men and women in the province. Although a gender pay gap exists in all Canadian provinces and territories, and Canada has the third largest gap among wealthy (OECD) countries, it is largest in Alberta: women working full time, all year make on average $31,000 less than their male counterparts.

The gender pay gap is even more problematic when we consider that Alberta women are performing a “double day,” doing approximately 35 hours of unpaid house work per week compared to men’s average of 17 hours.

Lahey confirms that higher-paying resource industry jobs are almost the sole domain of men, while women take up the lower-paying service and care jobs. Although such work undergirds the resource industry and is crucial for the whole economy, workers in these fields are valued less than workers labouring more directly in fossil fuel extractive processes—those men with “good jobs” the NDP government was speaking to in its speech from the throne.

Gender, race and country of origin are all built into the division of labour in the extractive industries. In a recent report, Amnesty International finds patterns of inequality and discrimination against Indigenous people in northeastern British Columbia that are similar to what researchers have identified as prevalent in Alberta’s oil industry.

Treatment of First Nations and Métis workers in B.C. “varied enormously among companies and at different worksites,” writes Amnesty. Some workers told researchers they felt “unwelcome and unsafe,” and that they are the “last hired [and] first fired” for any job. “There’s an old boys club that controls hiring,” Chief Marvin Yahey explained. “After everything is in play, they invite the First Nations in for the shovel jobs, the grunt jobs.”

The Amnesty report highlights “the conflict between jobs that require long, multi-day and multi-week shifts often far from home, and cultural traditions of being out on the land with extended family.” Indigenous peoples bear the brunt of the socioeconomic and environmental burdens in regions where resource extraction happens on a huge scale, yet they benefit the least from the massive profits generated by these industries. Amnesty writes:

Indigenous peoples whose lands and resources provide the basis for the wealth generated in the region, are excluded from a meaningful role in decision-making and bear a greater burden, including loss of culture and traditional livelihoods. The model of resource development, particularly the reliance on large numbers of transient workers, widens inequalities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and between women and men, negatively impacting Indigenous families’ access to food, housing, and social services and increases risks of violence.

One woman who works in the resource sector summarized the masculine working environment, telling Amnesty that women “work twice as hard to get half the recognition.” The study describes the work camps as, “a highly stressful environment. [The] physical isolation, and the drug and alcohol abuse at some camps all create an environment that can be unsafe for women.”

One of the main findings of Amnesty’s study is that violence toward Indigenous women is a routine part of life for those involved in B.C.’s extractive sector. Participants described daily harassment on some worksites. “It’s a boys’ club, so if something happens you don’t say anything,” confessed one Indigenous woman. Others described sexual advances or expectations by some of their male co-workers, and even cases of sexual assault.

Likewise in Alberta, workers in the extractive industries are afforded a different worth based on their race and gender. As the table here shows, white men are significantly advantaged in employment in the province, with the highest incomes in nearly every field. Furthermore, we see women overrepresented in low-paying sales and service jobs, with visible minority and Indigenous women the most overrepresented in these industries.

It is also clear from Lahey’s table that Indigenous men and women tend to do better in certain public sector jobs: health care, the arts, culture, and recreation and sport. Male and female workers of various races all seem to do a bit better in trades and transport jobs, showing the value in skilled trades work. However, white men still earn higher wages than most in this occupational category.

In its throne speech this year, the NDP government claims its core responsibility is to “make life better for everyday Albertans.” Although many of the government’s policy changes to date support that goal, its commitment to “good jobs” in the fossil fuel sectors is obviously leaving some people behind.

Women, Indigenous and racialized people are finding their way into these jobs, but they are still the exception, and they face enormous challenges of discrimination when they get there. How can the government and the private sector work together to ensure that all Albertans prosper?

On the government’s part, it’s time to introduce pay equity legislation. Alberta was a leader on raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, but it lags far behind other provinces when it comes to fixing pay gaps related to gender and race. Though the public sector has some checks and balances in place to ensure more equal opportunities for marginalized populations, the absence of pay equity legislation allows parts of the private sector to function in ways that maintain economic inequality.

Dealing with other forms of discrimination in the workplace will take effort by the private sector and unions. And the sooner the better.

In June, CBC News reported the story of Amino Rashid, a young, Black Muslim woman who alleges she and two of her colleagues were fired from their maintenance jobs at a Huskey Energy upgrader in Lethbridge after reporting Islamophobic comments directed at them on the job. The women have filed a human rights complaint against their employer.

In one of the alleged incidents, Rashid says she was told to take off her hijab because it was supposedly making others “uncomfortable” and that “this is the way things are done around here.” She told CBC News she filed the complaint to fight for herself and others. “I want all the people who can’t speak for themselves, that feel like they don’t have a right to speak up, I want them to know that I’m speaking up for you.”

As Albertans, we should be disappointed that “this is the way things are done around here.” That it’s OK our workforce is segmented by race and gender, and that women and ethnic minorities earn less money and experience more precarious work.

On a positive note, Husky Energy is taking the allegations of discrimination seriously by launching an investigation of its own into the contractor that employed Rashid. It is important that workers, employers and unions take these stories seriously, and act on them accordingly. But the response shouldn’t end there.

As Albertans, we need to take the evidence of a racialized and gendered workforce seriously—to understand how it undermines the frontier mentality that still attaches the image of a rugged, white oil man to the words “good jobs.” Those high-paying jobs, and the profits they create, are made possible by far too many underpaid, precarious care and service jobs done by women and other marginalized groups. There is nothing good about that.

 This article is part of the Corporate Mapping Project, a research and public engagement initiative investigating the power of the fossil fuel industry in Western Canada. The CMP is jointly led by the University of Victoria, the CCPA and the Parkland Institute, and supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

 This article was published in the November/December 2017 issue of The Monitor. Click here for more or to download the whole issue.