Sara Dorow, PhD, and Shingirai Mandizadza, PhDc
Fort McMurray and the oil sands industry of northern Alberta have become a quintessential destination for long-distance labour commuters: workers who regularly travel from and to a distant home base on rotational work schedules, usually of a week or more, and who more often than not stay in work camps located near bitumen extraction and processing projects. They come from as far away as Halifax and Detroit to work at jobs ranging from safety coordination to pipe maintenance to camp catering. In 2015, the more than 100 work camps in the area had the capacity to house some 70,000 workers.1
Such “mobile work” involves some fairly complex dynamics of support, as workers and their families care for each other at home and then across distances; as camp staff provide for the food, sleep and leisure needs of workers; and as camp staff and oil workers (both of whom are “mobile”) devise forms of self-care within and across all of these spaces. Interviews with more than 75 mobile workers in four work camps in the region have revealed a nexus of care involving relationships that are stretched out across the distances of the labour commute while simultaneously intensified on each end of the commute, at home and in camp.
Communication helps to ease emotional challenges of being away from family
How do workers manage familial networks while away from home on their work rotations? Staying connected through phone calls, texts or video chats is, of course, a key feature of the practices that help to sustain the worker and maintain family relations. First and foremost, these communications help to ease the emotional challenges of being in camp and away from family, and they contribute to making time in between shifts bearable. A camp housekeeper told us that she talked to her son and daughter every day “to try to stay sane,” while a trades worker from Eastern Canada used a more colourful description: trying not to go “shack wacky.”
Staying connected through phone calls, texts or video chats is … a key feature of the practices that help to sustain the worker and maintain family relations.
Communications were thus, in many ways, about managing the time away from home. Sometimes this involved counting down the rotation together. As one male camp cook put it, “What I do with my wife is, for instance,][each day when we talk] we will count down the days till I’m coming back.” For some workers, schedules for making contact are followed rigorously, at the same time every day. A construction worker named Derek called his wife four times a day. And for Phyllis, a camp housekeeper, the fact that she could regularly call her husband and “see” her grandchildren made everything “all good.”
One young trades worker from Eastern Canada, when asked as he sat alone eating dinner if he would be interested in a short interview, glanced at his phone and said he wouldn’t have much time: this was the only window of time during the day – after his shift in Alberta and right before her bedtime in Newfoundland – when he and his girlfriend were both free to talk. Sure enough, two minutes later his phone rang.
Talk of time also included planning together how it would be spent when workers returned home on their days off. Tim, who talked about “pushing through” his seven days, said that when talking to friends and family on the phone, “We try to line up some stuff to do for that week off, so I’ll have something to look forward to when I go home.”
Communication facilitates remote parenting and alleviates “FOMO”
A second and related facet of long-distance communication is the quest to keep current on what is happening in the lives of family and friends far away, often driven by FOMO (fear of missing out).
One seasoned housekeeper pointed to the crucial rhythms of keeping information flowing with her adult children and grandchildren: “I might go two to three days without talking to them, you know, which is not a big deal. They know mom’s fine and everything else, but, I mean, after the third day, something’s gotta be new, you know? Like, the other day, they went for a bike ride, so they got to tell me everything about the bike ride they went on – my daughter and my granddaughter – so, she was just, you know, excited. Something new to tell me.”
For those with children, communicating across the distance served yet a third purpose: remote parenting. An ironworker in a joint custody arrangement described the series of activities across space and time that were enfolding around his teenage daughter’s tendency to skip school. A phone call from the school led to a phone conversation with his daughter, which paved the way for the conversation they would have face to face when he returned. With a mortgage, a truck, and a daughter and ex-wife to support, mobile work in the oil sands seemed his only option, and this, in turn, brought practical ways of stretching out and intensifying relations of care while away and at home.
“Too much” communication can be distracting
However, managing and maintaining one’s mental health and well-being in camp can also mean keeping long-distance family and social relations “in their place.” For a portion of these workers, and more commonly for men in the trades, family life was a distraction that needed to be held at bay if one was to stay in work mode. Sometimes it was the heartache of being too regularly reminded of distance from family that was distracting.2
Ricky, a day labourer from Eastern Canada who often stayed in camp for months on end, described how painfully bittersweet it was to watch families enjoying time together when he drove into the city of Fort McMurray on weekends. And for others, it was the headache of dealing with ongoing family matters at a distance that was distracting. Omar, a camp custodial worker, described how stressful things could be in his home and family life. Drawing his hands up alongside each side of his head to mimic blinders, Omar said that when he was on rotation, “It’s just about work.”
Community “back home” helps workers manage family responsibilities
Mobile workers sometimes dealt with the problem of distance through forms of reciprocity and exchange with friends, neighbours or extended family back home. For male long-distance commuters with families, these arrangements helped to ease concern about how family back home would cope while they were away for weeks at a time. One trades worker described how a male friend back home helped his wife with chores such as yard work during his two-week rotation; he then reciprocated by carrying out maintenance and home repairs for the friend after he returned home from rotation.
Mobile workers sometimes dealt with the problem of distance through forms of reciprocity and exchange with friends, neighbours or extended family back home.
In some instances, it was spatial rearrangements of care work back home that accommodated mobile work. Marco, a construction manager, relocated his young family to the Caribbean to take advantage of the favourable weather and the cheaper childcare. Together, these factors made life easier for his wife during his long absences and easier for him on his return home.
While there are not many women with young or school-age children participating in mobile work in the oil sands, it was often the care of grandparents and especially grandmothers that made mobile work a viable option. A housekeeper named Martha felt that being away for three weeks at a time from her two school-age children back in Nova Scotia was “worth it because I’m making more money here than back home.” It was also doable because her parents, who lived nearby, actually moved into her home with the children while she was away.
Flexible circuits of care help accommodate employee mobility
These circuits of care help us see that a big part of managing and surviving camp life is about maintaining long-distance familial and social networks. It’s these relationships of care and support that help oil sands workers to manage their multiple responsibilities.
Our research thus addresses some of the existing research on long-distance labour commuting and family in ways that we hope open up further inquiry. First, we start from the perspective of mobile workers while they are away from home. Second, we include both resource sector workers and service sector workers, thus broadening the gendered scope of analysis and complicating the normative imagery of mobile work (man on the move, wife and children back home). And finally, we do not assume that mobility has only or mostly negative impacts on care or family relations. Such arrangements can have both advantages and disadvantages for workers and their families3 and entail a mix of transformations and entrenchments of gender and family arrangements of care.4
A team of research assistants contributed to this project. We especially acknowledge and thank Marcella Cassiano (PhDc) for conducting many of the interviews in work camps.
- Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, “The Municipal Census 2015 Report” (2015).
- Christopher Jones and Chris Southcott, “Mobile Miners: Work, Home, and Hazards in the Yukon’s Mining Industry,” The Northern Review 41 (June 15, 2015).
- Mark Shrimpton and Keith J. Storey, The Effects of Offshore Employment in the Petroleum Industry: A Cross-National Perspective (Washington, DC: US Department of the Interior, Minerals Management Service, Environmental Studies Program, 2001).
- Brenda S. A. Yeoh and Kamalini Ramdas, “Gender, Migration, Mobility and Transnationalism,” Journal of Applied Statistics 21:10 (November 2014).
About the On the Move Partnership
The On the Move Partnership is a research initiative that includes the Vanier Institute of the Family and 40 researchers from across Canada and around the world. This project is investigating how employment-related geographic mobility (E-RGM) affects households and communities, and how it influences and impacts prosperity across Canada. To learn more about the On the Move Partnership, visit our project page.
Sara Dorow, PhD, is Associate Professor and Chair of Sociology at the University of Alberta, where she teaches and conducts research in the areas of globalization, race and culture, gender and family, qualitative methods and the idea of community. She currently heads the Alberta team for the On the Move Partnership.
Shingirai Mandizadza is a Sociology PhD candidate at the University of Alberta. She currently works with Sara Dorow in the On the Move Partnership on a project that explores the gendering of work-related mobility in the oil sands of northeast Alberta.
Published on January 10, 2017