Writing about conditions in Suncor's tar sands work camps got me fired

Mouldy shower head. Photo: Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas is an electrician and blogger who lives in Edmonton. Until he was fired on October 6, he was employed by AECON Lockerbie and Hole, subcontracted by energy giant Suncor, and worked on tar sands sites north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. He was fired for writing the following two blog posts reprinted here. As a follow up, rabble.ca includes the fallout blog entry.


Blog One -- Suncor Firebag McKenzie camp, a review

Work camp life can range from excellent to rotten. Allow me to introduce you to rotten. Enter... The Mackenzie Camp Zone.

This is a review based on my own experience, the anecdotal (and personally witnessed) experiences of others, and the written reports many of us have submitted through our employer regarding camp Mackenzie at Suncor Firebag 3. Photos are courtesy of anonymous workers present at camp who want the story told and do not by any means represent the worst that we see. It is also occasionally better but [that] does not generally last for long.

No one expects the Fairmont Springs Resort experience at a work camp. In years gone by they have been pretty rough but have cleaned up a LOT in the last 20 years. This is not one of those camps, this is a scathing look at how we are treated so the people of the U.S.A. can drink Alberta's oil.

Mackenzie camp is the opposite of a good, modern work camp in every way. The only worse camps are the non-union camps where they house the poor souls unfortunate enough to work for FLINT or LEDCOR.

The comparison to new (mostly union) camps is easy, everything is better. You have full-service lounges with games tables and satellite, lots of laundry, great food, clean private bathrooms. Basically, everything I will rant about below is completely reversed. Please forgive the kind language, were I permitted to use much stronger vocabulary for all-ages posts I would most definitely do so.

At Mackenzie camp we are treated to such delicacies as four-day-old leftovers available to us as lunches to take to work with absolutely nothing available other than dry cereal if you don't/can't eat a bacon/eggs/pancakes breakfast of very questionable quality.

Just about every dinner side dish is out of a can or frozen bag then covered in salt and drenched in gravy or sauce. The quality of every dish is so far below what you would ever pay for in a restaurant many people skip meals. No corner is left uncut at this kitchen. One decent meal per week is enough to make everyone surprised and we will talk about it all day at work.

We have options for bagged lunches to take to work that includes stale vegetables that are sometimes unwashed (and occasionally are rotten/slimy), green fruit, sandwiches so high in salt it would terrify you, and a selection of donuts/cookies/cupcakes that would make Tim Horton's pale in comparison. It seems that its preferable for us all to get fat and die of heart attacks than for the camp to provide healthy, quality food.

One small cold-cut sub sandwich which contains nothing but meat and bread has over 2,700mg (that's almost THREE GRAMS) of salt. Or 113 per cent of your daily recommended intake. Even a basic chicken sandwich on brown bread contains 40 per cent to 60 per cent of your days salt in one small stale processed meat sandwich. There are no alternatives or healthy options other than bananas.

The camp room itself is generally fairly clean, with fresh sheets once a week (or so). However this is an old-style camp where 50 guys (and sometimes a couple of unfortunate females) share a group bathroom with four or five showers/toilets, four urinals, and a row of sinks. There are a couple private bathrooms but good luck getting at them with the line-ups for showers after work.

All the vents are connected together so that if one person gets sick you are almost guaranteed to get it as well, the only answer is to stuff your vents with towels and live with stuffy stale air. It is not uncommon to have dozens of people ill, and there are occasional outbreaks of flu or cold that can affect hundreds at a time. Laundry facilities are two washers and three dryers for 50 people who generally become filthy every day.

Internet connections are spotty at best, wireless that cuts out and is so slow it will likely take at least 15 minutes to upload this simple blog post. A telephone is available if you buy unreasonably priced phone cards that are almost always out of stock and wait a half hour or more in line. Only TELUS and Bell cell phones get reception up here and any calls you make or receive will apply as long distance to your bill, depending on your plan. Isolation is part of what makes it hard on people/families who work up here. It is very similar to the psychological effects of prison, or remote military service, only without the discipline and government oversight.

Gym facilities are abysmal and consist of broken down or incomplete weight machines, a few treadmills and bikes stuffed into what amounts to closet space, and a small TV. It REEKS in there of ancient stale sweat, mould, and there is zero air circulation.

Camp staff are either invisible or cranky and surly. We can't blame the cleaning/cooking staff for what they're given in materials and orders but they should take some responsibility by raising staffing and quality concerns with their employer. The cooks hate their lives and it shows in the quality of the food. It must be a shattering blow to the professional pride of a trained chef or cook to have to serve this kind of garbage. Being entirely powerless to help themselves or others makes the lower levels of camp staff unhappy and bitter, which translates into poor quality service at all levels.

Consequently, the majority of staff are foreigners brought in who are easily abused and controlled, too afraid to stand up or come together and raise standards. Those in positions of authority hide behind the presence of security guards where they flex their authority. These clowns have the ability to get you fired simply by revoking your "privilege" to stay at camp, thus ending your employment. They treat everyone like prisoners and have a negative attitude that breeds resentment and results in occasional incidents.

In the future I will document a good camp experience, such as PTI Wapasu which is a new modern camp with better staff, logical rules, and higher standards.

There is no alternative to this treatment but to fight for higher standards for everyone, it's a shame that it falls to unions to handle this on behalf of the entire industry but that is the way of the world here in Alberta.

There is no viable complaint procedure, no responsible person to notify of low quality or dangerous conditions, as camp patrons we are almost entirely helpless and at the whim of these people and they know it. This only reinforces the general resentment (or forced acceptance) of these conditions.

We do not choose these conditions, nor are we responsible to quit if we don't like them. There is no reason this needs to exist, and especially no reason that hard-working men and women should give up their ability to support themselves. I hope everyone recognizes that this is no way to treat human beings who are building critical multibillion dollar infrastructure projects.

Solidarity is not just for unions. Think how you would feel if your child, spouse, family member or friend had to live like this for extended periods of time. It's time to enshrine minimum living conditions in our union-negotiated agreements and protect ourselves from abuse and ill health. In work camps, safety is not restricted to tools, it extends to housing, food, and social health as well.


Blog Two -- Camp life part 2: Suncor Voyageur Camp at Firebag, a review

The absolute minimum that they can get away with providing.

I try not to be TOO harsh about Voyageur given that I was recently a guest at McKenzie camp which I wrote about here. It is an improvement over [McKenzie] for sure. It still rates as below several living standards by some measure, but it could be considered salvageable if there were certain improvements made.

It is my understanding that at the urging of their camp workers and caterers union (local 47) they are making some changes for the better, although it is over stiff resistance by camp management at ESS. Keep it up, we're all watching for improvements and we support the camp workers totally in ANY efforts to provide us with a healthier camp environment. ESS and SUNCOR should know they can't run the camp without these workers, and they can't build these plants without us. Smarten up!

This camp has a gym that is actually worth using, although EXTREMELY cramped. Wireless internet is provided camp wide although it is slow and restricted. They also claim to track your usage and judge/punish you accordingly for data usage. There are payphones for use with phone cards and the phones are located in semi-private closets so you can walk about 10 minutes from your room, and sit on a tiny chair in a toilet stall sized chamber to make phone calls. By comparison most modern camps have phones in your room like a hotel. We are after all guests, not prisoners...right?

The food is somewhat better than at McKenzie work camp. There are more options and the kitchen is larger, and cleaner by far. It is not up to the standards of our usual union camps such as Wapasu and elsewhere but at least there is effort put into the food by a capable cooking staff who care about their trade. Dinner is generally acceptable, occasionally good, the breakfasts are nothing special but at least have some varied options. Most of the cooking staff seem to be qualified and friendly. They are unionized and they do a pretty good job. Turkey dinner last week was REAL turkey, instead of processed turkey loaf which was the norm at McKenzie. That said about two out of five dishes are fried/deep fried.

Don't you feel good dealing with this every day?

Camp suppers have all the major food groups. Fried, deep fried, stewed, and -- ahh -- a little fresh for garnish!

The lunches are the same as most camps, low quality and not very fresh. They do not change the lunch menu EVER but there are more selections than the McKenzie camp and it is possible to make some slightly healthier choices if you try. The selection never changes, but they do mix up the bread options so sandwiches aren't always exactly the same.

Some basic considerations are ignored, such as sneeze guards, dairy salads left open for hours and there are no freshness dates on anything. (Instead of putting "made on" dates they put "best before" dates leaving you to trust their cost-savings vs. health judgement). How do you know that "best before Friday" doesn't mean "made two weeks ago"? If they can save a buck, they will as we see here

Once again there is no shortage of very unhealthy baked goods. Every description of fatty sugary treat is available, the quality ranges from poor to excellent but if you want to avoid diabetes and/or a heart attack you are stuck with vegetables and a few sandwich options every day, day after day. Everything is processed, the meat, the cheeses, all of it. You eat more oils, fats, and salt here than humanly should be possible. Transfat and cholesterol levels would send any dietician on a bloody rampage.

The accommodations are a problem, some areas of camp are connected only by mud roads to walk through if you want supper or to hit the gym. Other areas are connected by rubber or wooden walkways and some sidewalks. All housing areas are very old and maintained only as well as the residents demand through complaints and maintenance requests which are ignored as often as they are addressed.

The bathrooms are not well maintained and smell of urine and feces frequently in some bunkhouses due to the lack of ventilation and constant gas from the drains. Sewer gas backup is a regular occurrence as there is insufficient drainage and they force 50 guys to share a pair of small bathrooms furnished with three toilets, showers and sinks each.

The floors are mopped, counters are wiped, the basics all seem to be done and the cleaning staff is certainly doing their best given the available time, supplies and staff, but maintenance and quality standards are seriously lax. It looks like this is due to a total lack of respect for the workforce by camp management (ESS) and site management (Suncor).

Shower heads are caked with green slime and rust in some bunkhouses. Towels are in short supply and sometimes not available. Floor mats do not exist. When towels are provided they are about as ratty as it gets. I would use them in my garage as rags. Drain problems caused the urinals to overflow due to clogged pipes last week. The poor cleaning attendant had to deal with a floor covered in urine and running water.

The staff is not given the tools by ESS to do their job properly and there seems to be some morale/work ethic issues as a result. Suncor is even starting to notice and I hear they are kicking some butt at ESS to clean up the camp finally. When an oil company wants to raise standards, you know something was VERY wrong.

We should wonder what else was sub standard, given the few things we do notice that imply a lack of attention by maintenance. What kind of camp allows THIS kind of disgusting build-up from the air ducts by the main dining hall where we all eat? I touched it, its greasy, and 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick.

Camp security is not bad to deal with usually, but they're everywhere and generally give the feel of prison guards. The housing office staff are competent (and occasionally cute, for which I am much appreciative at least in one case), but they're overworked and it shows. Generally because of the owner's demands (Suncor Oilsands), they are forced to mistreat and/or inconvenience us frequently. If a policy can be written to make our lives a little more difficult, it appears to end up written that way.

What saves the day more often than not is the willingness of the staff to help a person out. Like most instances of customer service, it isn't always the person you're dealing with at fault, it's the policy or the idiotic directives we are forced to endure at the hands of the higher-up management. People get angry when they are pushed around helplessly, and don't see the logic in why they're treated a certain way.

My observations and investigating have shown that ESS is very confrontational with their workforce and seems to resist attempts at raising the working conditions of the staff (and thus our living conditions). This contributes to an overall review result of poor to fair. (Depending on which area of the camp you stay in.)

What we have is the absolute bare minimum that any company can get away with providing without having some kind of riot. You can get through your shift well enough especially if you don't pay attention, but look a little more closely and you see just how shoddy the place is. Eventually people get beaten into accepting it, or they give up because nothing ever seems to improve. That is what it's like to work non union, as that is who this camp was for.

I prefer to care about myself, and the people I live/work with.

It's sad but this is the camp we all hope to get sent to -- at Firebag -- only because of how bad McKenzie is. Our minimum standards should be higher, this is not a temporary worksite, it is a 10-year plus megaproject.

There is no reason we can't be treated with respect, fed properly, and housed in dignified conditions so we can be rested and able to focus on working our shifts safely. The impact this [poor-quality] camp has on our daily job performance is not to be underestimated.

Check out videos on my YouTube channel where I host whatever videos I post in the blog and more.

We can't let our lives at work remain secret. How can anyone relate to us if all they think is that we go up north to some mystical place and come home with money?

There is a profound psychological and physical impact on a person from living in camps. Our stories should be well known and understood. We are people, not animals, and the least these companies can do for making BILLIONS off our labour is to treat us decently.

If you treat people like animals, they start to act like animals right? Let's all keep things dignified. We want to come home safe and healthy to enjoy the time off we work so hard to earn.

 

Blog Three - The aftermath

One person can make a difference, don't ever let them tell you it can't be done.

Recently I was fired for blogging about the conditions I lived in at the Suncor Firebag3 project north of Fort McMurray.

This raised some very serious concerns for me, about how much secrecy and how much area these companies control, as well as people understanding how we live and work up there.

Do you know how your friends, lovers, relatives, fellow citizens live while they're producing the gas that is likely going into your car? What people don't know might disgust and anger them, because it might hurt those of us who endure it.

I spoke about it online, it was posted around facebook, twitter picked it up, and many people shared my concerns. Reddit and other blog sites carried the link also. All of it was spread and submitted by people who read it and cared enough to share.

I want to very much thank everyone, the hundreds of construction workers on this project supporting me especially, all my online friends, my family, and the public for taking an interest in this. Thousands of people per day read about this issue and as of tonight it is on the national agenda! People do have power, it just takes a little more for us to exercise it than these huge rich companies.

Because of this we may actually be able to see some real change. Kind of opposite to the usual way things go isn't it? Cross your fingers and continue to help out! Keep up the pressure, and talk about this to people you know. Please spread the blog around at www.adhdcanuck.ca, and subscribe!

My union (IBEW 424) and the Alberta Federation of Labour are both looking into this matter, and seeking the advice of their respective legal teams, as well I hope pursuing other avenues to get an acceptable resolution to this problem.

As for Suncor, they tried to post a public relations fantasy response on the comments of one of my blog posts. I hope they decide to help turn this issue around and give my colleagues better living conditions.

We expect to be fed decent quality, healthy food that is fresh. It is only fair that our beds are clean and free of bugs, our toilets and showers are in good working order and uncontaminated, and that we are treated with dignity and respect as a valued workforce that stands to make Suncor BILLIONS of dollars.

We want to be heard and responded to. The workforce asks only to be respected.

Many large companies have been brought down over customer issues or crimes against workers, environment, etc. by using Twitter and the Internet. Look at the current public image problem faced by the tar sands.

By treating us this way we are being forced to go public and I hope more people will continue to do so. Tell your stories, everyone.

Mike Thomas is an electrician and blogger who lives in Edmonton. He writes about politics, performs experiments to demonstrate and encourage civic involvement, reviews eco-tech, and has a strong personal interest in environmental as well as workers rights issues. Having stirred up various hornets nests in the corporate world he believes in thriving independent citizen media and strong oversight of large corporations as well as government. He thinks people should be seen AND heard, and that it is vital to nurture the participation of all citizens in issues large or small.

His experience was originally published on his blog AdhdCanuck.ca.

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