Oil boom pay can’t buy decent shelter
NOT since the late 1800s, when tens of thousands of Europeans settled in Canada’s wild west, has the country seen so many immigrants. But there are still too few to abate growing demand for oil industry workers.
Western Alberta province sits atop an estimated 175 billion barrels of oil, ranking second behind Saudi Arabia in petroleum reserves. But due to high extraction costs, the deposits were long neglected other than by local companies.
Since 2000, skyrocketing crude prices and improved extraction technologies have lured significant foreign investment that has pushed oil sands production to one million barrels per day. And, according to a recent Alberta Energy and Utilities Board report, output is expected to triple over the next decade, making Alberta one of the biggest energy producers in the world.
But a shortage of skilled workers, despite attracting 57,000 migrants from across Canada and 20,000 immigrants from abroad to the province last year, is now threatening to curb its unprecedented economic growth, say officials.
‘‘ Right now, we know that in the next 10 years we’ll need some 400,000 workers and even if we are educating more and attracting more, we’ll still be short about 109,000,’’ Iris Evans, Alberta’s minister of employment, immigration and industry, said.
The province’s unemployment rate has fallen below 4 per cent to a record low. To fill job vacancies, Canada is now looking to boost the number of temporary worker permits issued for Alberta’s booming oil sands industry, and is aggressively recruiting foreign workers in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
‘‘ We recognise that without immigration, we are not going to meet our expectations,’’ Evans said.
But labour bosses have expressed concern that foreign workers are vulnerable to being exploited by unscrupulous employers. On its website, the Alberta Federation of Labor says ‘‘ some employers take advantage of these workers by not paying them fairly, charging high rents and making unfair demands.’’
‘‘ They are new to Canada and unfamiliar with our rules, customs and, often, language. They are dependent upon their employer for their visa, their work and often their housing and transportation,’’ the union says.
To complicate matters, housing is in very short supply and skills shortages mean little can be done to meet the growing demand. ‘‘ Fort McMurray is a great place to live if you can find a place to live,’’ says Pascal, a new arrival from Quebec province, sitting in front of his camper in a trailer park a few kilometres from Canada’s oil sands capital.
The campground is home to hundreds of oil industry workers, and hundreds more are on a waiting list to get in, willing to pay monthly fees comparable to the cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto, Canada’s largest metropolis, to park their own mobile homes in a dirt field — about $A1000 monthly.
The population of Fort McMurray, about 700km north of Calgary, has doubled to 65,000 since 1996, and could triple in the next decade.
Fort McMurray mayor Melissa Blake says the local shelter is overcrowded and many newcomers are unable to find any lodging.
‘‘ There has always been homelessness in our community. With all those people coming in you expect more of that, but what is actually happening is that the nature of our homeless people has changed. We have people working, earning money and they still cannot access affordable housing,’’ she said.
Blake blames a lack of funding from the province, which generates oil sands royalties, for lagging municipal services.
Pascal’s abode is austere, but the campground is a bargain compared to the cost of renting an apartment in Fort McMurray, which, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing, has the highest average rental costs in the country — up to $A4200 monthly.
His neighbour Steve, from eastern Ontario province, however, has had enough of living poor while earning a small fortune in the oil sector. He also complains about the widespread sale of drugs and of the prostitution that high wages and small-town boredom fosters — not to mention the freezing cold.
‘‘ I’m getting . . . out of here,’’ he said. ‘‘ It was minus 47 in the winter and these . . . trailers are not made for that kind of cold.’’ AFP
Fort McMurray: The population has doubled in 10 years to service the increasingly profitable oil sands industry