Alberta’s migrant workers flooding B.C.’s social services

Many finding work in construction, but affordable housing remains an issue

Union Gospel Mission case manager Lem Moses said the migration of workers from Alberta’s  oilsands sector took everyone by surprise | Rob Kruyt

As February rolled around, Union Gospel Mission case manager Lem Moses could no longer deny the obvious. The social services shelter was being flooded with migrant workers from Alberta’s oilsands. Moses said the influx of Alberta energy industry workers took everyone by surprise.

“It just came out of the blue,” Moses said. “In the past we would get the odd migrant worker from Alberta coming in. It was not a big thing. Most of our guys come from back east – Quebec or Ontario – but we were not prepared for this, the extent of the damage this had on their economy.”

Moses said many of the migrant workers were used to high-paying jobs in the oil and gas sector, but are having to settle for a lot less as they transition to a new home.

“The pay amount that they receive here, especially the temp work, they’re pretty much slaving away for minimum wage. So they aren’t too impressed with the money that they are making but they’re saying it’s better than not being employed.”

When James Fisher couldn’t find work in Alberta after being laid off, he decided to leave a province that has the highest unemployment rate west of New Brunswick.

The 44-year-old former trade foreman for an oilfield crew is now working part-time in Delta unloading aluminum from containers. He’s also temporarily staying at the Union Gospel Mission because he can’t afford housing in Vancouver. He said the drop in oil prices, which went from a high of US$107 in June of 2014 to below US$50 a barrel for much of 2016 sent everyone for a spin. 

“It caught a lot of people off guard,” Fisher said. “There were mass layoffs. … You’re working for a company for so many years, you never think a rainy day is going to come. And then when it does come it’s a bit of a shock.”

Jeremy Hunka, a spokesperson for the Union Gospel Mission on East Hastings Street, said it has seen a 50% increase in the number of people from out of province, and is now turning away three times as many people as a result.

Hunka said that as many as 15% of the gospel’s shelter rooms are inhabited by oil and gas workers from Alberta on any given night. This means as many as a dozen Albertans staying at the mission looking to start over in a new province with far lower wages, coupled with higher housing costs.

“These aren’t people who have become entrenched on the streets for years,” he added. “They’re recently out of work and have come to a hard point in their life and need a stopgap.”

Marcia Nozick, founder and chief executive officer of the non-profit work placement organization Embers, a said she is seeing the same thing. Embers is funnelling virtually all of them into construction work.

“Every day, we meet at least one or two Albertans who are looking for work,” said Nozick. “Many are highly skilled labourers and we’re able to connect them with temporary and steady employment opportunities in Vancouver’s construction industry. Right now there are lots of workers and a lot of jobs.”