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This May Day, take action to stop COVID-19 outbreaks at energy work camps

The COVID-19 pandemic, physical distancing and millions of Canadians out of work all contribute to a very different May Day this year.  

While we won’t be able to gather in person this year, International Workers’ Day on May 1 is an opportunity show solidarity with frontline workers and to fight for better conditions for workers whose employers are putting them at risk.   

Earlier this month, we warned that over 100 energy megaproject work camps are continuing to operate, across B.C. and the prairies. Each of these camps houses hundreds of workers in close proximity, despite the need for physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

We’ve since learned that sadly, COVID-19 has made its way to at least one oil sands work camp and over 80 cases of the virus can be connected to an outbreak at the Kearl Lake facility. 

The longer these camps remain open the worse it could get. The COVID-19 outbreak at Imperial Oil’s Kearl Lake camp underscores how Big Oil work camps are now recklessly spreading COVID-19. These camps risk spreading the virus to Indigenous and northern communities, to the workers and to their home communities as they commute back and forth.  

This needs to stop immediately.  

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Teresa Tam has said “we cannot afford to have any weak points in our system” in fighting COVID-19. An obvious weak point is the continued operation of over 100 energy megaproject work camps.  

In addition to the Kearl Lake work camp outbreak, there are also 16 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Fort McMurray. The outbreak has led to a “cluster of new infections” in B.C., and health officials have noted workers at the camp may have spread the virus to other provinces too. With more than 33,000 temporary workers commuting in and out of Alberta from across the country every few weeks, we can sadly expect more to come. 

A recent outbreak in a remote northern Saskatchewan community also appears to be linked to workers returning from an Alberta energy camp. Meanwhile, a contract employee tested positive at Syncrude’s Mildred Lake worksite, north of Fort McMurray.  

One infectious disease specialist in Alberta has said it is “almost inevitable” that outbreaks will happen at work camps that continue to operate.  

Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) President Gil McGowan has warned that oil sands workers could become “super spreaders as they fly back to their home communities across the country”. 

The situation is even more precarious now that work camps are also being used to house over 1600 flooding evacuees, highlighting the intersections of the climate and COVID-19 crises. These issues are likely to be compounded as we get further into flooding and wildfire season. 

Much like Big Oil’s approach to the climate crisis, the way it is dealing with work camps and the pandemic doesn’t appear to be based on science. Rather than shutting down to respect physical distancing, they are continuing to operate while screening workers for symptoms. But it is well documented that a significant portion of those infected are asymptomatic. This means when more outbreaks inevitably happen, workers will spread the virus further across the country and into northern Indigenous communities. Many may do so without even realizing they’re contagious. 

According to the AFL President McGowan, there have already been outbreaks at work camps and other large facilities, in addition to the one at Kearl Lake, which haven’t yet been publicly acknowledged. McGowan says that “dozens and dozens” of workers at sites like these have tested positive for COVID-19 and many others who may have been exposed “are being sent home from these jobs without testing, even though they may have been exposed to co-workers who have tested positive or are exhibiting symptoms themselves.” 

The Alberta government has promised to start publicly releasing information on these other work camp outbreaks within two weeks but has yet to do so. 

McGowan recommends drawing lessons from the report of the Ontario SARS commission, in the wake of that epidemic. Those recommendations included integrating workplace health and safety officers into the government’s emergency response decision-making structure, proactive inspections or worksites instead of letting industry self-regulate, and mandating that employers consult more extensively with unions. 

“Perhaps most importantly,” says McGowan, “the SARS commission concluded that governments and employers should have been required to embrace the “precautionary principle,” which stipulates that when lives are at risk we should err on the side of caution, even if action may seem premature and all the facts aren’t in yet or there are competing interests (like industry profits). If they don’t get over themselves and start embracing best practice approaches to infection control and worker safety during a pandemic we’re all going to pay a heavy price.” 

Amnesty International has also raised concerns about the impacts on local Indigenous communities of the Keeyask dam construction camp, which Manitoba Hydro has refused to shut down, despite the pandemic. 

To curb the spread of COVID-19 in Labrador, Vale paused construction at its Voise’s Bay mining site, as has Nalcor at its Muskrat Falls megadam. In the case of Vale, the company said the workers will be paid during the work stoppage. Why is this not happening with the Trans Mountain, Coastal GasLink, Site C, Teck’s coal mines, and the 100 other work camps?  

In Regina, there is political opposition to the work camps continuing to operate. PressProgress reported Regina Councillor Andrew Stevens raised concerns about Co-op Refinery continuing to operate a work camp for the 300 scab workers that are on site.  In PressProgress, Councillor Stevens states: “From a presumably common sense public health perspective, if you cram a lot of people into a camp like that, naturally there’s going to be a vector of diseases.”  

The refusal of Co-op Refinery to shut down its scab work camp in Regina in the midst of this pandemic underscores the reason why all of these camps aren’t being shut down: corporate greed. 

Elected leaders at all levels must act now. The Council of Canadians is calling on Prime Minister Trudeau to shut down these unsafe work camps and provide support for impacted workers immediately. More than 5,000 people have signed the petition calling for the camps to be shut down – can you help us reach 10,000?