Mobile miners: work, home, and hazards in the Yukon's Mining Industry.

Author:Jones, Christopher
Position::Report
 
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Abstract: The Yukon is on the verge of a resource boom. A major change since the early 1980s has been mining companies' increasing reliance on long-distance commuting to move their workers to mine sites. While long-distance commuting can be seen as reducing the benefits the Yukon receives from mining, it can also be seen as an effective way of reducing the negative impacts that arise from the boom and bust nature of the industry. Long-distance commuting also represents new opportunities for workers currently living in the Yukon. It represents the potential for longer-term employment without the need to continually move to different communities. Yet little has been written about the attitudes of these workers towards their employment situation. What are their major concerns? Are there specific concerns relating to their mobile lifestyle? As an exploratory attempt to answer these questions, this articley examines twelve in-depth interviews with respondents from diverse backgrounds who worked in the Yukon's mining industry. The findings indicate that workers in long-distance commuting mining firms had a range of perspectives regarding their workplaces. Some are general concerns that are not unique to their mobile lifestyle, while others relate directly to this. In terms of long-distance commuting, it appears most workers responded positively and were content to travel. While the sample size was small, the research suggests several avenues for further research such as the situation of women in new mining operations, Aboriginal employment experiences, perceptions of safety, and the separation of home and work.

Introduction

In 2012, the Yukon, as it has been numerous times in the past, was on the verge of a resource boom. Three mines were in operation and four others were at various stages in the development process. At the time, the Yukon's mining industry employed about 600 workers and was seen to have the potential to employ another 1,000 (Paslowski, 2012). While the years since have seen a downturn, the boom period allowed us to see that the Yukon's mining industry--and the Canadian mining industry in general--has been in a period of transition since the 1980s as it changes from an industry based on Taylorist work practices and Fordist regulation, to an industry based on flexible and lean production practices.

A major change since the early 1980s has been mining companies' increasing reliance on long-distance commuting to move their workers to mine sites (Storey, 2010b). While long-distance commuting can be seen as reducing the benefits the Yukon receives from mining, it can also be seen as an effective way of reducing the negative impacts that arise from the boom and bust nature of the industry. Long-distance commuting also represents new opportunities for local workers currently living in the Yukon. (1) It represents the potential for longer-term employment without the need to move outside the region. (2) In order for the Yukon to maximize the benefits of this new employment arrangement, a better understanding is needed of the issues that these workers are currently facing.

This article is a first step in this regard. Changes to mining firms in the Yukon have affected workers in a variety of ways, and this article explores those ways by analyzing twelve in-depth interviews with respondents who worked in Yukon's mining industry. The primary objectives were to identify the major concerns of workers, and find out if these concerns were related to their mobile work experience. These respondents came from diverse backgrounds, and their experiences--as men and women, local and non-local workers, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, labourers, tradespeople, and professionals--help us understand the impacts these new work processes have for workers.

Given the limited sample size, it is difficult to make generalizations about the findings. As an exploratory study, our primary purpose was to develop a series of potential tendencies that could be researched in more detail. As such, our findings indicate that workers in long-distance commuting mining firms had a range of perspectives regarding their workplaces. Many are sentiments that are most likely shared with non-mobile workers in the mining industry. Most workers described a close-knit, masculine, workplace culture at their mines. However, two groups of underrepresented minorities in mining, women and Aboriginal people, may face issues in entering and staying in this industry. Women were described by respondents as welcome, yet were also described as being concentrated in low-paying support roles and absent from underground mining positions. General comments also indicate that Aboriginal people may face negative workplace environments at these mines. Additionally, some respondents brought up issues with safety in their workplaces. These issues could all be barriers to hiring and retaining a diverse local workforce at long-distance commuting operations.

In terms of long-distance commuting itself, most workers interviewed responded positively and were content to travel; they felt long-distance commuting was part of the mining lifestyle. However, local and non-local workers travelled for different reasons. Local workers appeared to be concentrated in labourer positions and their jobs were described as precarious, forcing them to travel often to new, often temporary, jobs. The two non-local workers interviewed, both tradespeople, noted many opportunities to work outside of their regions and the mining sector, and travelled to take advantage of these high-paying positions. In terms of home life, those local, unmarried workers who were interviewed seemed to enjoy the lifestyle and were willing to travel long distances for work. Those interviewees who were nonlocal workers with families provided more mixed experiences. It appeared that those who were highly experienced in long-distance commuting may have adjusted to this lifestyle, while novices travelling long distances could experience more fatigue in both their commute and home lives.

The Changing Face of Mining

For most of the twentieth century, Canada's mining industry tried as much as possible to rationalize production through the use of accepted industrial organization. This has impacted the experience of those working in the mining industry. In the early twentieth century, Frederick Taylor wrote a treatise on workplace organization entitled The Principles of Scientific Management where he argued that workplaces could be made more efficient by having workers and managers work together to identify the best ways to complete tasks. Managers organized and planned work tasks to be as efficient as possible while workers completed the specific tasks laid out for them. By dividing the labour process in this way both employers and employees benefited; employers would enjoy higher productivity and therefore higher profits, which they would pass on to employees as higher wages (Taylor, 1911, p. 10-12). In discussions of resource development, this system has been linked to Fordism (Hayter, 2003; Jenson, 1989).

By the early 1980s Canada's mining industry began to change. A global recession caused a decline in mineral prices, and the mining industry began a period of restructuring (Storey, 2010b, p. 28). Lean production originated in Japan with auto manufacturers in the early 1980s as a new way of organizing the workplace. In contrast to Taylorism's strict division of workers' labour into specific tasks or jobs for efficiency, lean production emphasized efficiency and flexibility in the workplace (Roos, Womack, & Jones, 1991). Companies now had to make due with a smaller workforce at a time of rapid technological change and increased global competition. This new, lean, workforce had to learn a variety of new skills and take part in decision making. This would supposedly lead to greater job satisfaction in the workplace (Russell, 1999, pp. 15-23). But lean production was also potentially dangerous, because workers may also be exploited by employers more easily. For example, greater decision making and flexibility in jobs performed could place greater responsibility and workload on workers for no increase in pay (Russell, 1999, pp. 1-3).

Canada's mining industry changed in two other ways at this time, specifically in terms of new technology and the development of new mines. The development of new technology allowed automation and mechanization of some work processes in mining. Consequently, demand for general labourers decreased and many were laid off in mining, but at the same time demand for skilled workers to operate these new machines increased (Russell, 1999, pp. 120-128; Storey, 2010b, pp. 25-26). In terms of development, new mines were built farther away from urban centres, and with shorter projected lifespans. Companies and governments were unwilling to support expensive mining towns, only to have them shut down when mines closed in a few years (Storey, 2010b, p. 28). Companies found a solution by building camps at the sites of mines. These camps were small relative to the old mining towns, and provided basic accommodations for workers while they lived and worked at the mine site (Storey, 2010b, p. 29). Companies now expected workers to travel to these camps from home for long shift rotations. Today these rotations vary depending on each project, but are usually between two and four weeks at work and home (Costa, Silva, & Hui, 2006; Storey, 2001). These new working conditions are often known as fly-in fly-out, or FIFO, operations, but can also take other forms such as drive-in drive-out, or DIDO.

These new operations help companies and governments avoid many of the costs and political problems associated with building a town. They result in a leaner and more flexible operation that requires less physical infrastructure than the building of a new community. FIFO may also be beneficial to the regions where the operations...

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