When Slavery is Bad for the Planet – Rightless Migrant Workers in Alberta’s Tar Sands

by Tristan on March 17, 2010

in Activism, Climate change, Ethics, Oil sands

Perhaps the one good thing one can say about the tar sands is that the cost of extraction is high. It takes a lot of energy to get the oil out of the sand, and it takes a lot of workers.

Fortunately for oil sands investors, however, the “worker” problem is being solved by Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker program. Roughly speaking, the program allows foreign workers to skip the immigration process and come to Canada to work for a company which has sponsored them. The company finds them housing, trains them, and employs them. The workers technically are protected under the same workers legislation which protects Canadian workers. However, unlike Canadian workers, they are deported if fired, so there is a very high incentive against reporting on the job abuse or workplace safety violations. (Actually, this has been changed, and now migrant workers can pursue other jobs. However, before they can apply for a second job during their period here certain paperwork must be filled out which takes up to five months – the effect is fired workers either work under the table, or go home).

I’m not bringing this up to be a throw-it-all-in-a-bucket leftist, this importing of low-rights foreign labour has a direct environmental effect – by lowering the price of labour (unions can’t demand high wages because they can be threatened to be replaced by foreign slave labour) tar sands firms can speed up development of new reserves. Furthermore, since the supply of foreign labour is virtually inexhaustible, development is no longer constrained by Canada’s ability to provide workers and can therefore grow their workforces much faster.

This is an instance of strategic alliance between labour and environmentalist interests – it is in both groups best interest for the cost of labour in tar sands to be high, and some of the best ways of driving up the costs of labour are letting the market respond to the labour shortage with higher wages, as well as to make sure that costly safety measures are respected. This isn’t to say the alliance is perfect – labour (qua labour) has an interest in the continued growth of the tar sands since it means jobs, whereas the correct and universal interest is for them to shut down, regardless of the apparent cost.

Furthermore, when it comes to the construction of sustainable energy production and infrastructure, environmentalists might find themselves at odd with labour advocates, simply because it would be a lot easier and quicker to rebuild Canada’s energy with cheap, right-less foreign labour than with Canadian union labour. However, it’s probably a mistake to dwell too much on possible future disagreements – what we need to do now is work on shutting down the tar sands, and decreasing its profitability by demanding that humans have rights is, at least currently, a way we can push for that to happen.

Report a typo or inaccuracy

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan March 17, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Importing foreign labourers is an extremely common feature of petro-states like Dubai, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. Increasingly, Alberta’s position in Canada resembles the position of those states within the world. Government is increasingly dependent on hydrocarbons for revenue (and votes, via job creation). It is also increasingly threatened by any efforts elsewhere to restrict fossil fuel production or consumption.

If a Canadian federal government ever gets serious about fighting climate change, there is sure to be a big jurisdictional dispute with Alberta.

Tristan March 17, 2010 at 1:39 pm

I think I’ve advocated Albertan invasion before. What is becoming more clear is that we can not rely on “Canada” to take such action.

Milan March 17, 2010 at 1:46 pm

I think there is some oil sands extraction in Saskatchewan, as well. And I think it has been at least considered in parts of B.C.

Milan March 17, 2010 at 1:47 pm

Just a bit in Saskatchewan: Athabasca Oil Sands map.png

I am looking for something on B.C.

. March 17, 2010 at 1:50 pm

“Only 3% of the initial established crude bitumen reserves have been produced since commercial production started in 1967. At rate of production projected for 2015, about 3 million barrels per day (480×10^3 m3/d), the Athabasca oil sands reserves would last over 170 years. However those production levels require an influx of workers into an area that until recently was largely uninhabited. By 2007 this need in northern Alberta drove unemployment rates in Alberta and adjacent British Columbia to the lowest levels in history. As far away as the Atlantic Provinces, where workers were leaving to work in Alberta, unemployment rates fell to levels not seen for over one hundred years.”

. March 17, 2010 at 1:52 pm

Opening the Door to Oil Sands Expansion
The Hidden Environmental Impacts of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline
Published: Jan 18, 2010

The proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline Project will facilitate the expansion of the Alberta oil sands. If the current business-as-usual management of the the oil sands prevail, the environmental impacts associated with the pipeline will be significant.

Opening the Door to Oil Sands Expansion highlights the climate, land, water and air impacts that would occur as a result of this project. It recommends that before further steps are taken to develop the Enbridge oil sands pipeline, the environmental management concerns of the oil sands need to be addressed and a public inquiry that could engage communities in the full range of impacts be concluded.

Milan March 17, 2010 at 1:54 pm

Perhaps B.C. is just a source of workers and natural gas, to drive expansion in the Athabasca region.

Milan March 17, 2010 at 1:55 pm
. April 6, 2010 at 4:45 pm

How can miners be kept safer? Do we need more legislation?

The real obstacle to safety reform is that miners no longer have a powerful union sticking up for them. History shows that when miners have: 1) been organized and angry; and 2) had the strong national leadership of the United Mine Workers of America backing them up, they’ve been able to push for the legislative changes necessary for lasting advances in safety conditions. Sadly, neither of those two factors exists today. Although mining in the United States is safer now than it was in past decades, that’s the case because organized mine workers pushed hard for reforms a generation ago—reforms that are still in effect. Whether those reforms are enough is now in question.

Tristan April 6, 2010 at 4:53 pm

Perhaps a union cause we can all agree on – unionized miners push up the price of coal and protect miners’ lives.

Milan April 6, 2010 at 7:11 pm

Though coal unions are yet another status quo power that wants to perpetuate and, if possible, expand the industry.

Quite possibly, they will work to hamper the sort of retraining schemes that should probably at the core of government policy, where coal and labour are concerned.

Liz April 12, 2010 at 3:41 pm

Hi I’m from England and am taking an open university honours degree in environmental studies, whilst working full time. I have been interested in following the alberta tar sands story for a while now after learning that those downstream of the workings are experiencing increased deaths and other ill health whilst the riperian wold is decimated. My original thought was that the Canadian government would never allow it to continue once they understood the problems. Oh dear how wrong I was….every success to those able to reduce such a global wrong. Liz

Milan April 13, 2010 at 11:30 am

If only things worked this way. Politicians care a lot more about cash and jobs than about behaving ethically towards most of the people who climate change will affect.

Within the next few years, revenues from oil sands royalties are expected to hit 25% of total provincial revenues. Much of that is used for laudable things, like health and education, but counting it exclusively as an economic boon ignores the many real costs associated with exploiting these resources.

. April 14, 2010 at 2:20 pm

Immediately following the West Virginia coal mine disaster that killed — so far — 25 miners, the owner of the mine, Massey Energy, released a statement from CEO Don Blankenship that included the following sentence:

“Our top priority is the safety of our miners and the well-being of their families.”

Some residents of Central Appalachia could be excused for scoffing. As the L.A. Times reports, federal officials have “repeatedly cited” Massey for safety violations. In 2009, reports the New York Times, the mine registered 458 violations.

And then there’s the famous memo sent by Blankenship in October 2005 to all “Deep Mine Superintendents.”


If you have been asked by your group presidents, supervisors, engineers, to do anything else other than to run coal (i.e. – build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever) you need to ignore them and run coal. This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills.

Mine “overcasts” are critical to proper mine ventilation, and for many miners, Blankenship’s memo made it abundantly clear exactly what Massey’s “top priority” was, and is.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: