Oil boom pay can’t buy de­cent shel­ter

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Resources -

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

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