Kiruna Supplier

Modular and movable – smart and sustainable?

We’re reading the magazine for the Euro Mine Expo 2018 in Skellefteå, Sweden, a fair and conference for the mining industry that just recently closed (we didn’t participate).

It’s always interesting to study what the industry itself considers to be salient issues and themes. The themes of the conference were innovation and business development, sustainability in action, and future outlook. Most of the magazine consists of ads of rather traditional character, pushing products and services with a technical jargon. One full-page ad on “modular space premises” stood out, however (see the picture heading this post). “The future is changing. Modular and movable”. Overall, our experiences echo this, and in a way it captures an important issue, and tension, in mining today, at least in the contexts of our project.

An industry highly tied to a particular place is changing its ‘spatial fix’, which, again, is one reason for why it is such an exciting industry to study. MCA in Saskatchewan has already broken the link between mine and (a nearby) community, which enables some people to stay in their local, small and remote communities in northern Saskatchewan. In Kiruna, however, the situation is different and the future seem less certain in terms of where the (decreasing) workforce can/will live.

Later in the ad it is concluded that modular space premises are “smart and sustainable”, but that is a debatable claim; a claim possible only within a more narrow win-win capitalist perspective. One important question to be asked and discussed: smart and sustainable, in what way, for whom?

Kiruna Storyteller Supplier Union

Storyteller #33 – work vs community?

Next storyteller is one of the ombudsmen inside the gates, reflecting on the recurrent theme of people doing work in the Kiruna mine but living (and paying taxes) elsewhere:

It would be better if they move up, then there might have been more lively here [as in more pulse in the local community]. And there would also be more tax money in this town. This depletes… But if you get an assignment to work in Kiruna for four years, why bring the family here if you perhaps already is a worker who moves around? Those who were here and built our new main level [at 1365 meters below ground] are such people.

Reading a report about the mining industry from 2015, written by the central organisation of the union IF Metall (with sections in Malmberget, Svappavaara and Kiruna), it is stated that:

Overall, the mining industry has had a larger share of entrepreneurs compared to many other industries. In 2013 the companies reported that entrepreneurs represented about 45 percent of the working time. Maintenance and repair as well as drilling and loading are often contracted out. (page 42; our translation) 

Aboriginals Cameco Canada Kiruna Management Storyteller Supplier Uranium

Storytellers #29 and #30 – using local contractors

The general trend in the mining industry is to increase the use of contractors in order to be more flexible, adaptable and cost-effective. Whether this is achieved can be debated, but the trend is clear and although the markets for iron ore (the Kiruna case) and uranium (the McArthur River/Key Lake case) are different, they are both nevertheless highly influenced by ‘boom and bust’, ‘feast and famine’. Walking the fine line between stability and adaptability is highlighted in northern Saskatchewan, where companies like Cameco has to engage local firms and workers as part of the regional agreements (written about earlier on this blog). Interestingly, in some of the conversations, this is lifted as a competitive advantage from both sides of the table, and although more complex than this, the arguments boil down to ‘local knowledge’ and to ‘loyalty’. The first quote below is from a contractor owned by an indigenous band from the north and the second quote is from a manager at Cameco.

companies like Cameco learn that we can deliver and can count on our loyalty to mobilise quickly and to do it quickly as well because we understand what it takes to get it up there. We get to know the local people, it’s easier to identify with the locals. So after a period of time companies like ours starting to have a clear returning in investment back to Cameco.

I would say that the work we do with the contractors has become more stable over the years because we have pushed to have more northern content in our contracts, for workers as well. I think things like that have made Cameco more stable, has made it more stable for the contractors.

Kiruna Supplier

Storyteller #27 – an offer you can resist…

Next storyteller works for an employment agency in the Kiruna region. We talked about how they worked with recruitment for the mining sector in and around Kiruna, and how that oftentimes involves not only a potential miner but also his/her family.

– This issue with ”tandem recruitment”, that we work with…
What’s that?
– Well, oftentimes you work with, as in Kiruna for example, getting people to move here and then the person might have a wife or a husband who searches for a job in other professions. Then it’s a matter of informing about the need for people in the space industry, in the tourism industry, healthcare, education, to show how the schools work and the range [of things to do] beyond work. […] That [the housing issue, finding accommodation in Kiruna] has been the hardest part actually. Perhaps they’ve got a job and started working but then they go back home, saying that this doesn’t work out when it hasn’t been possible to arrange a permanent accommodation, not being able to bring the family.
Has that become an issue with this fly-in and fly-out?
– It has a lot to do with that, for sure. And that’s because the companies have been forced to use this 7-7 [7 days on site, 7 days at home] and so on, although they don’t really want to. They want the people who come here to settle, but they’ve been forced to adjust in order to get the right competence. But it has slowed down a bit since we’re in this period now [lower iron ore prices].

LKAB Storyteller Supplier

Storyteller #26 – balancing between own people and contractors

Next storyteller is a contractor who (just as many of the other contractors we’ve talked) used to work for LKAB. The quotes below are from the part of our conversation where this person reflects on how a shifting balance between using the mining company’s own employees and contractors impact LKAB’s performance.

– I think the easiest way for LKAB is to cut away more parts (of the operations), to sell out parts and place them with contractors. That’s the easiest way to turn the ship around. […]

– Is there any risk (for LKAB) with such a strategy?

– Yes, you loose the in-house competence and the long-term perspective. And if you let go of too much you risk ending up in that conflict again, “whose responsibility is this?”. So, it has to be clear that LKAB still is the client, whereas the performer could be somebody else.

Kiruna Nature Storyteller Supplier Worker

Storyteller #21 – mine and society

Our next storyteller is a woman, grown up in the Kiruna area and now working for a supplier to the Kiruna mine. During our conversation we discussed all kinds of topics related to the mine and to work. Below, we’ve selected two quotes from her thoughts on the mine and society:

If you would put words on the relation between you and the mine? What does it [the mine] do to a person living in Kiruna?

I’d say that the mine has… When times in the mine are bad, it influences people, there are many working there. A negative impact, impacts society, that is Kiruna as a city, the inhabitants. When times are bad in the mine, its noticeable in society. When times in the mine are good, its also noticeable. I think that if the mine slows down and there is a recession, even if other types of businesses wouldn’t have to, they still get cautious, they think ‘now times are bad’. Perhaps you postpone purchases until later. I think you’re influenced although not really conscious of it. […]

This trend where they extract more ore with less hands, is that talked about? […]

Yes, well, it’s as if they extract more with less hands, and in a faster pace I would say. Sometimes I wonder if the mountain has time to catch up. Do you see what I mean? Does it have the time to settle… we’re taking something that… a resource that exists. We make a hole in it but does it allows us to do it? Are we moving too fast? We just take and take and take, soon the mountain might protest and just collapse.

Kiruna Storyteller Supplier Worker

Storyteller #20 – they say fly-in/fly-out

Next storyteller, a young man, works for a contractor to the Kiruna mine.

– I’m from [Nn], about 300 km from Kiruna. I’ve been working in Kiruna for almost four years. Fly in, fly out.

– Do you say that? Fly in, fly out?

– Well that’s how others say it so…

– Who others?

– Who look at us, who don’t live here, where I work. Or, how to put it, I don’t use the word myself, but that’s how it is, you come here and work, and then I go home. […]

– Is it meant in a negative way or is it just a…?

– No, it’s just the way it is, what can I say… There are a lot [of us commuting] who don’t have any plans to move here, you just come and get work and then you go home.

– Have you thought about moving here?

– No, not so far.

– Why not?

– Well, I’m not… I don’t know. […] At first, I worked Monday to Thursday every week, I went home over the weekend, but I thought it was a lot of driving so I wanted to start working 7/7 instead.

Kiruna LKAB Storyteller Supplier

Storyteller #12 – “when the company sneezes…

…the whole town gets a cold.” This is an old saying, repeated to us by storyteller #12, working for a contractor to the Company, LKAB.

– You use to say that when LKAB sneezes, the whole town gets a cold, so in these more difficult times we’re also influenced. We’ve had to lower our prices and all contractors have been summoned to LKAB to lower their prices.

– Yes, we’ve heard about this and even read about it in the media.

– Yes, it’s widely known.

– How are they in the negotiations then?

– It’s our owners (of the contractor) who are involved in that, I’m not part of it, but it’s surely a matter of give-and-take. It’s obvious that LKAB reads our annual accounts so maybe they draw their conclusions. We must also make money in order to develop so…

– So they can check your profit margins?

– Yes, absolutely, I believe they do, and through that they can say that ‘you could reduce this amount’. I think they do this, they are smart.

Kiruna LKAB Storyteller Supplier

Storyteller #11 – having to move

Storyteller #11 is a local person, working for a contractor to LKAB and the Kiruna mine. This story is about having to move because of the expansion of the mine. The conversation takes place at a local restaurant.

– Because we live in this area that will be teared down. All these houses are affected.

[detailing where exactly this area is]


– How do you think about this?

– Well, for us (family with young kids), privately, it feels tough to move, given the situation that there’s nowhere to move. The prices have gone through the roof and it’s difficult to find a house, and it’s not easy, it’s quite complicated. But at the same time you have to understand that we live in a mining town and it has to do with the jobs. It’s influencing several years before it’s time to move.

– Have you received, how are the kids affected?

– The kids say that ‘daddy, do we have to tear down the house and move?’. That’s not so fun to hear. Their history is to live here so they don’t see living here as positive (knowing that they have to move), but they don’t see the bigger picture, they don’t have this view that it’s about the survival of the city.

[talk about the kids]


– We’ve received, we went to a meeting and then we got the information that in 2020 they (LKAB) wants to own the property. But now they’ve looked again at the deformation zones and it seems as if it (the move) will be postponed again, so we might be able to stay some more years before they want to own it.

– How does that influence, ‘should we put up new wallpapers?’?

– Yes, it’s about that. We’ve renovated ever since we moved in because it was pretty run downed, so we shaped it up, but there’s still the kitchen to go. But now, I’ve lost the motivation completely, the organization is under ground. When you talk to the neighbours you feel that they’ve also lost the motivation to do something. The fact that you don’t know influences this (the motivation), and we’re looking at alternatives, to maybe move out of town. We’ve thought about that since it’s so difficult to find a house you’d like to live in. And many are thinking like this, it’s not just we who think about moving.

Kiruna LKAB Storyteller Supplier

Storyteller #8 – contractors

Storyteller #8 is a man, working above ground, a white collar. This story is about the role of contractors.

– I’d say that the majority of the jobs (done by contractors) are done by local companies. If you look at international companies, they have a relatively small share, particularly if you compare with geographical areas that are closer to the rest of Europe. It’s pretty far up to Kiruna or Malmberget, which means that we don’t have the same global market. So, the majority is made up of local companies, then there’s a small, small share of international companies.

– Could you say that many of them… used to be employed by the Company, or? Maybe you don’t track this…

– Yes, but it’s both, it’s both companies that have always worked here, they’ve always had their own companies. Before we used to have more functions in-house but during a period now we’ve outsourced and during that time, maybe it was more that you said to those skilled people, that ‘couldn’t you start this company’…

– Okay, so we could hire you?

– Yes, it was probably a bit like that. […]

– I’m thinking, that much I’ve understood, that there’s a very strong faith in the Company, that it carries Kiruna in a way. Does that mentality exist among the contractors, that it is the Company that should fix it, that should pay the bill? Do you understand what I mean? It’s a kind of patron mentality. If something happens, the Company will come in and fix it.

– Yes, that’s the case. It (the Company) is a very important customer to a lot of contractors, that’s how it is. From history you also know that when times are worse, it’s the contractors that go first. You protect the own staff over everything else.

Kiruna LKAB Storyteller Supplier Worker

Storyteller #3 – the dream factory

Our third storyteller is a man, born and raised in Kiruna. He has been working under ground since the 1980s. The story is about leaving, arriving and staying at the dream factory, a k a the mine and LKAB. It comes out of a discussion about a mutual friend of ours leaving LKAB.

– Yes, sure, there are those who have come and gone, and that have left in other directions. I was a bit surprised, I get surprised sometimes when people leave the dream factory, I actually do. With him (the friend) too, I didn’t understand why he left. For him, okay, he didn’t have the world’s most funny job and where he was… But leaving for a private company (LKAB is state-owned)… I have a colleague, my colleague, he has been working for private companies his whole life and then he was employed (here, at LKAB) to some extent with the help of our former-former manager, who was a really good manager. We got, I got him in, I helped out. I mean, LKAB is a little bit like a family company. It’s basically about friends and acquaintances. You get people in. They come from school, people, and ‘This is a son of that person, should we bring him in? You see, I knew since before that he was a fitter (a skilled mechanic), he has been working with machines’. So, anyway, he started and he said: ‘I will not complain the first year, I will not complain at all’. Because complaining, you do it regardless. It might be the pay, it might… But he said that we make really good money on the job that we have. We might get greasy but we make pretty good money. If you’re satisfied in that way, then there might be small things that you get irritated with. It might be small things. There are always that, but in the large picture it felt really good. Sometimes I don’t understand why some people leave for a private firm.

– What does the dream factory mean?

– Yes, LK is, I don’t know if I shall, I think LK is a good employer. I don’t know if I could work somewhere else. I’ve also heard, my colleague tells me that, well, given that he has worked at (a private firm in another industry) and at regular workshops, and he says that there is such a stress compared to at LKAB. LKAB don’t have the same stress. Then again, we experience more stress today compared to before. Had he arrived, lets say, ten years ago, already then it was calmer. It was about that time that it (the stress) started to increase for us, you could say. But it wasn’t the same stress as in town (a way to express working for other organisations then LKAB). In town it’s like, at private firms, it’s like, you have to work, you can’t be sick, you cannot do nothing. That’s why I get surprised when he (our mutual friend) left for a private firm. Then, you’re like, well, if he wants it then let him, but you get really surprised.

Kiruna LKAB Management Supplier Worker

Precarious times

Working life in the mine is not turbulent at the moment, not at all, but due to the current re-organization it’s very precarious, uncertain, insecure, unreliable, unsure, unpredictable…

This is not only the case for blue collar workers and white collar workers in service positions who are unsure of where employments will be cut (cause there’ll be cut downs), but also for managers, particularly middle managers. At LKAB in Kiruna, we’re told, all current management positions are made provisional, temporary, until further notice. One middle manager wrote to us about these precarious times, paraphrased: “Nobody knows who will end up where. The confusion is total.”

Talking to suppliers, even they feel these precarious times. One supplier told us that it’s like everybody is waiting, like a wet blanket over the town. We heard about a sub-contractor for the first time asking a contractor if it was possible to put the invoices on hold for a while.

Again, what happens in the mine, how the labour process is managed, always spills over into society. From the inside and out.

It is also interesting how the thesis about precarious work (as in Guy Standing’s “The Precariat”), often linked to the increasing use of different short-term employments creating a new class of people having to deal with chronic uncertainty, sneaks into a work environment that to a significant degree is permeated by permanent employments. From the outside and in.

Kiruna Supplier Union Worker

Logbook updated

Waiting at the hotel room in Kiruna before going home, we reflect on our conversations with both old and new acquaintenances. It’s been a very good trip. More blogposts await!

We’ve updated the logbook on the Swedish case (click here).

Aboriginals Cameco Canada Supplier Uranium

Aboriginals and the labour process (part 4)

Two short questions are still left hanging from my visit to MCA in Saskatchewan and from reading the CVMPP-reports:

What about the contractors? In the reports, contractors are not really dealt with, but they still represent a significant part of the labour process. Just as on site, they had their rooms in a building beside the Cameco employees, but they shared the other facilities (restaurant, wellness facilities etc.). Interestingly, most of the large, visible contractors on site are owned by indigenous bands. In the report on socio-economic benefits it is stated that “the uranium mining industry contributed significantly to the business capacity of northern Saskatchewan (e.g., growth in contracts from northern suppliers from S23 million in 1989 to S464 million in 2011)” (2013: 8; although down to S308 in 2014). In the report, the uranium companies are called upon to explore how small northern companies can have contract opportunities, but beyond this, the contractors are not really included in the reports and analyses by CVMPP.

What about the communities? What seems to be a recurring issue, when mining companies operate or seek to operate on indigenous people’s land, is how the companies could/should approach the complexities of indigenous communities. In the socio-economic report one of these complexities is addressed under the heading “On local participation” that: “While the uranium mining companies indicated that they try to respond to community interests, they have found it challenging to communicate effectively with a large number of communities (57) located across the vast region of northern Saskatchewan.” (2013: 10) Several views on what dictated community relations were expressed during my visit and in the reports aspects such as accessibility to educated labour, particular need for labour, how vocal the community is etc., were mentioned. This echoes research on what happens when capitalism and science meet indigenous wisdom and folklore, in that the complexity of the latter discourse often have to be reduced so as to fit the former discourse.