A guide for mobile mine workers

Gertrude Saxinger & Susanna Gartler 

Mine buildings at Giant Mine, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.

Mine buildings at Giant Mine, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.

The mining industry today operates primarily with a labour force that is highly mobile since typical mining towns went out of fashion over the last number of decades. Shorter life cycles of projects, volatile mineral prices on the world market, and high costs for maintaining fully-fledged mining towns are just a few reasons for this trend.

This development means that workers live for a certain period of time in a camp near the mine site followed by a recreational period back home. The shift cycles can be two weeks in and two weeks out, but longer rosters are possible too. Accordingly, these men and women lead a very unique lifestyle characterized by permanent mobility and multilocality – meaning that two different places are very relevant in their life: The camp which becomes a meaningful community consisting of colleagues and, of course, the home where family and friends are located.

Researching labour mobility

In the research project “LACE – Labour Mobility and Community Participation in the Extractive Industries in the Yukon” we studied this unique life of mining employees and asked how new workers can learn to successfully cope with this specific situation. Our team interviewed over one hundred women and men working in the mining sector in the Yukon Territory as well as their spouses and experts in order to understand how people experienced this way of life and how they handle these unique circumstances and manage life in a good and satisfactory way.

Often this so-called “fly-in/fly-out” (FIFO), “drive-in/drive-out” (DIDO) or “long-distance commuters” (LDC) lifestyle is portrayed in a negative way due to the hardships involved for family life. This was the starting point to ask how people successfully cope and how this life can be considered as “normal” and satisfactory.

The mobile workers guide

The key applied product of the LACE project is the Mobile Workers Guide – FIFO and Rotational Shift Work in Mining. It presents a wide range of insights into a work life that is characterized by mobility, living in camps and being away from home on rotation. It contains advice from experienced workers, men and women, from a variety of professions in the exploration and mining sector in order for industry newcomers to learn how best to cope with potential difficulties and how to draw benefits from this itinerant lifestyle. The sections throughout the guide introduce the readers to topics, such as coping with boom and bust cycles, specifics of mining communities, First Nation employment, women in mining, family life and private relationships, income management and career development.

First Nation perspective

A particular focus of the guide is on employment of First Nation people in the mining sector. For this purpose the team did long-term anthropological field work in the Yukon. Our base for the study is the community of the Na-Cho Nyäk Dun First Nation in Mayo, although we did visit other mining sites and communities in the Yukon. On the Na-Cho Nyäk Dun territory, placer mining and industrial extraction of gold and silver takes place. Mining there started in the early 20th century in the Keno Hill region rich in silver deposits. Today, as part of agreements between the First Nation and the companies, the local workforce is increasingly hired and employed in a variety of professions.

For First Nations who are living off the land it is important to combine working at the mining sites and being on the land. People think carefully about what it means to work in an industry that has environmental impacts and that is therefore so important for cultural identity and subsistence activities. Very often we heard from our interview partners and people in the community that over the decades mining has become a natural part of the everyday life in the region. We heard that many people are pro-mining as long as it is done responsibly and local First Nations are properly consulted over the course of decision making. Deposits should not be exploited in short time frames just for quick profit but rather saved for future generations.

Many of the workers we talked to emphasized that income from mining is important for being able to afford the necessary gear for hunting, trapping and other activities. The fuel, boats, skidoos and trucks are costly. We observed that many people prefer rotational shift work over a “nine-to-five” job. During a recreational period of two weeks in the course of the shift cycle it is possible to go out on the land for a couple of days in a row and to have enough time to hunt moose or work on the trapline. A culturally sensitive work environment is also essential. For example, “it is” necessary that Indigenous workers get additional days off during hunting season. There is still a long way to go before First Nation members are employed in all levels in the industry, including management positions. A positive development is that companies have strict anti-racism policies that are also enforced.

Outreach

The Mobile Workers Guide will be available online in March 2017 at the website resda.ca/labour-mobility. It is based on examples from the Yukon Territory, but we expect it will be useful to people in other provinces and territories and to the mining industry at large. Furthermore, the guide will be available in a booklet form and will be  distributed free of charge to communities in the Yukon Territory. We hope the guide will provide useful information for industry newcomers in different professions and that social workers, mining-liaison officers, and mine training courses will benefit. ◉

Dr. Gertrude Saxinger is Assistant Professor at the University of Vienna and the Austrian Polar Research Institute (APRI). She is adjunct researcher at Yukon College in Whitehorse Canada and PI of the project “LACE – Labour mobility and community participation in the extractive industries — Yukon”. She serves as council member of IASSA, the International Arctic Social Sciences Association and focuses on extractive industry studies, labour mobility, multilocal ways of life and transport infrastrucutres in Canada and Siberia. Susanna Gartler is project collaborator with “LACE – Labour mobility and community participation in the extractive industries in the Yukon” and a doctoral candidate at the University of Vienna in Austria. Her research interests include cultural revitalisation, First Nation studies, the extractive industries and environmental anthropology.

Notes

The Mobile Workers Guide was endorsed by the Yukon Chamber of Mines and the Centre for Northern Innovation in Mining at the Yukon College in Whitehorse and stems from a collaboration with the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun and the Village of Mayo in Yukon, Canada.

The research project “LACE – Labour Mobility and Community Participation in the Extractive Industries in the Yukon” is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) through the research initiative “ReSDA – Resources and Sustainable Development in the Arctic” and by the Yukon Government, Department for Economic Development. Duration: 2014-2017. Research team: Gertrude Saxinger, Susanna Gartler (University of Vienna, Austria & Austrian Polar Research Institute), Chris Southcott (Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada), and Valoree Walker (Yukon College in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada). Project website: www.resda.ca/labour-mobility


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