FORT McMURRAY, AB — A nearly week-long halt on work has put a lot of Newfoundlanders at a certain worksite in Alberta under pressure.
Fort Hills is an open-pit truck and shovel mine located in Fort McMurray, Alberta, co-owned by Suncor Energy, Total S.A., and Teck Resources Limited. The project has an expected lifespan of approximately 50 years, offering plenty of work to those with the proper trades. However, January has been a trying time for those working onsite under Kaefer Industrial Services, with a recent interruption to work impacting pay cheques.
The pause in work comes from the site’s introduction of hot solvent, a substance used to flow through pipes to check for leaks, or inconsistencies in welds.
One worker, a man from Conception Bay North who preferred to remain anonymous, spoke with The Compass about the struggles workers are dealing with at the Athabasca Lodge in Fort McMurray. He explained that his shift was informed that the hot solvent would be used at the site from Dec. 28 to approximately Dec. 29-30 during their Christmas break.
“I came back up here on Jan. 18. I found out that they didn’t (use the solvent) on the 28th – it got pushed forward. We were told it was supposed to be done last Sunday, and it got pushed forward again and again. They started it on Wednesday, the 17th, and we’ve been off ever since,” he said. “People were asking our foremen about the pay, and we were all told that we were gonna get our 10 hours a day, which is what they said just before Christmas, but it got confirmed a couple days ago in an email from Kaefer that that wouldn’t be the case.”
Instead of receiving their 10-hour day pay as they initially expected, workers under the sub-contractor Kaefer have been receiving only two-hours’ worth of pay each day. For some, this means only $50 a day, as opposed to a possible $200-250.
For many Newfoundlanders commuting from the east coast, which he estimated to be around 100-150 people, traveling back and forth can cost a pretty penny. For his most recent flight back to Alberta, it cost him almost double the $875 travel allowance.
“I paid almost double the travel allowance, and that right there is money I was hoping to get back up here working,” he said. “In the total of the last seven days, I’ve made probably $400-500, when we could be making way, way more than that. There’s guys up here making nearly $4,000, so that’s almost $3,000 lost for them. And (the contractors) haven’t told us a thing. Every person here has a family, and bills to pay. Getting paid two hours a day isn’t cutting our bills, whatsoever. It’s very frustrating.”
With approximately 3,000 to 4,000 workers onsite being affected by the lack of work, many are fed up and are seeking answers to their questions. The worker said many have decided to leave the site, though he added that the majority of those live nearby, and can simply come back when the work has started up again.
Workers were recently informed that on Monday, Jan. 22, the hot solvent would continue to be introduced to secondary extraction. Following a meeting held on Monday afternoon to address any questions or concerns of workers, an update from Suncor was issued to all workers, addressing the main concern on many of their minds – money.
“Unfortunately, this has taken longer than expected,” the update said, regarding the use of the solvent on the site. “And as a result, we haven’t been able to remobilize our construction workforce as quickly as we would have liked.”
The update goes on to acknowledge the impact the halt of work has had on workers staying at the camp, but also recognizes the need to ensure the safety of those employees, noting the significant risk associated with introducing the heating solvent to the site, maintaining the position that only essential personnel should remain on site to reduce risk.
However, the update also notes that Suncor plans to work with employees effected to compensate for any lost wages.
“In consideration of this unique situation, directly affected workers will be compensated for their lost wages beyond the initial 24-hour period. This reflects regular daily wages based on a 10-hour shift,” they said. “Fort Hills will work with the employers of the impacted workers to facilitate payment of the missed wages in a timely manner.”
With the secondary extraction underway, all personnel will be restricted from accessing the site, all bussing has been cancelled, and workers are to remain at the lodge for the remainder of the day. This, as the worker explained, has also been a draining experience for them.
"We still want our 10 hours a day for being here, because this here is like a prison."
“Our kitchen opens up at 4 a.m. to 9 a.m., and after that, all we’ve got to eat is a sandwich and some cookies until 4:30 that evening, when it opens again for supper,” he said. “That same update was told to us two days ago, and we did not get back to work, so even if our site goes back to work, we still want our 10 hours a day for being here, because this here is like a prison. It’s as boring as it gets here, because we’re an hour from town, which would cost us a fortune for just one way. It’s like we’re trapped, with no work, or anything else to do all day, and only getting paid two hours for it.”
The worker also provided The Compass with a letter received by workers from Kaefer. In the letter, the company offers their condolences for the frustrated workers, and notes that they have requested more compensation, but have received no response.
“We have no right to ask you to be patient, however, that’s all we can do regarding the current circumstances,” the letter says. “We do apologize for this major inconvenience, both financially and emotionally.”
The letter also states that if any workers are preparing to leave the site to return home, they request that a notification be sent along, stating whether or not they are quitting, or simply leaving until work begins again.
However, the worker feels as though leaving is not an option or himself, as well as many other Newfoundlanders working on the site as pipe insulators, scaffolders, and sheet metal workers.
“I could, say, leave right now and go on home. There’s no point in us staying here at this point,” he said. “But if I packed up now and left, I would lose my travel allowance, so I’d have to pay (the full price of the flight). On top of that, I’d get a Suncor site ban, so I’d be banned from all of Suncor sites, and they own a good 40 per cent of work in our trade. We’d also be put in as fired, so it’s been hard, that’s for sure.”