Our paper on the fly-in/fly-out work regime at the uranium mine in Saskatchewan is now published with open access. Click here to access the paper via the homepage of the Journal of Rural Studies.
Our paper on the remote uranium mine in Saskatchewan, Canada, has just been accepted to the Journal of Rural Studies (JRS). It’s a relief, since we’ve worked a long time with this paper and worked hard to improve it after every setback (see the posts from April 2018 or December 2018). JRS got the best version! As soon as the paper comes on-line first we’ll make another post to notify you. Meanwhile, here’s the abstract:
The article presents a case analysis of the work regime at a uranium mine, located on indigenous land in northern Saskatchewan, Canada. All the miners are flown in and out (FIFO), and with nearly half the workforce coming from different indigenous communities. We ask how the miners participate in and experience life as FIFO workers, and enrol the community concept in the analysis. Defining community as not merely a group of people or a place but also, in the wake of Tönnies’ classic work, as a matter of attitude, the case analysis reveals a community at work but fragmentation of indigenous communities off work.
In a sister-project to Organizing rocks, funded by Handelsbanken’s research council, we take a historical approach to mining. One part of the project includes a comparison between the iron ore regions in Malmfälten (with the mines in Kiruna, Malmberget and Svappavaara) and in the Pilbara, western Australia. The Pilbara comparison is based on a collaboration with Professor Bradon Ellem at the University of Sydney. Recently a comparative paper from the project was published in the European Journal of Industrial Relations with the title “Neoliberal trajectories in mining: Comparing Malmfälten and the Pilbara”. It gives our Organizing rocks project more of a context and historical grounding. Although we’re completely biased here, it is a nice read! Click here to access the paper on the journal’s homepage (and if you don’t have open access, e-mail Johan at firstname.lastname@example.org). Here’s the abstract:
We compare the iron ore sectors and mining regions of Malmfälten in Sweden and the Pilbara in Australia. Both are physically isolated and the product is economically vital, but we find differences in industrial relations which accord with what would be expected in coordinated and liberal market economies. A closer examination, attentive to history and geography and in which changes in institutional form and function are highlighted, reveals, however, that these differences are more apparent than real, and that there is a common neoliberal trajectory. This analysis also suggests that changes in these sites at times drive transformations in national industrial relations.
The mining industry is one of those sectors where a gendered division of labour (GDL) is highly evident. Things are changing, however, but sloooowly. Below, we’ve gathered some of the quotes from four different storytellers at MCA, the mine in Canada we visited. We think they help illustrate that thinking about organizing rocks not only need to consider gender but also both life inside and outside the gates (on gender, see also previous posts, here, here and here):
What do people in your community do?man, indigenous, manager
Majority of the guys work in the mines. A lot of guys I hang out with work in different mines around the area. The women keep busy with working back home.
The normal situation is that the man, father, works here and the wife would be with the children?
Yeah, there are a few women that work here that has their kids at home but that is part of their aboriginal culture that they have the family structured to look after the children, like the grandparents. […] There are very few women here that have children back home.
woman, non-indigenous, manager
People at home, they are very helpful. When you have a shift schedule like this you find a lot of people are ready to bend their backs backwards to help you while you’re gone as they know someone is needed to step up and help out, while you’re not there.woman, indigenous, manager
Most stories I have heard so far, the man works here and the woman stays at home.
Haha, I don’t know who you have been talking to. We have a lot of women up here. […] if I had started when I was younger I would probably only have one child. Especially if I had wanted to continue working up here. Like I told you I do understand that the wife tend to be staying home.
Sometimes things are tough but I call my wife to talk with her every night so if anything happens then she will be pretty helpless when I’m up here, right. Well, especially with a young family it’s tough but when the kids get a little bit older they grow more independent and stuff, and they get used to the schedule too. […] Everyone needs to deal with it and big credibility to my wife that needs to deal with it, she is a strong woman. A lot of other couples can’t handle it and they break up.man, non-indigenous, worker
Mines tend to be located in remote regions, such as Kiruna (Malmfälten) and McArthur River (Northern Saskatchewan). Over time this has caused a core challenge for mining companies: how to enrol workers to these resource peripheries?
In Kiruna the first rocks were knocked loose in 1896 and once the mine started, workers from all over Sweden (and parts of Finland), many whom had spent years building the railway from Kiruna to Viktoriahamn (now Narvik), Norway, migrated to Kiruna to become miners. Around the mine the local community of Kiruna was built. Local reproduction of workers was crucial as there were scarce opportunities to do drive-in/drive-out or fly-in/fly-out!
Reflecting on this today, things are different – well, of course! But this particular phenomenon, the challenge of remoteness in getting access to workers to the mines, is of core interest to our project. Today, remoteness is not as serious a problem for a mining company, in this supposedly ‘old economy’, as commuting is much more feasible, work-schedules even accommodate it. This changes the company’s position visavis society, as local reproduction, and current ‘reserve army’, is not as crucial anymore. How much social engagement in the local community should the company invest in when many workers do not live there? After all, the main responsibility for LKAB and Cameco is to generate revenue to its owners. No? Cameco turned it around in MCA, ‘stay in your (non-mining based) local community and we’ll come get you’, but for LKAB in Kiruna, it is facing a depopulating local community once built entirely around the mine.
We’re writing about this at the moment in a forthcoming book (in Swedish) and we have it as bits and pieces in the two articles that we’re fighting to get accepted. What triggered this post, however, was yet another one of our many storytellers. Once upon a time people migrated to Kiruna, not anymore, or? Reading through some of the interviews again, one with a municipal officer in particular, it struck us that at the time of our empirical studies, the crisis in Syria started and unprecedented amounts of refugees came to Sweden. Some of them were also sent to Kiruna, to this depopulating, remote area in Sweden. While the municipality fought to negotiate the urban transformation of Kiruna with LKAB, where lack of housing was (is) a key concern due partly through commuters/contractors buying/borrowing real estate, and partly due to the mine ‘undermining’ the town (we’ve written about this in earlier posts), Syrian refugees stood at the train station, needing a place to stay, something to do. Kiruna also needs people if it is to combat depopulation, where some see refugees as an opportunity, but the mine does not need people (well, they lack some specialists, but the workforce is in general being reduced). Also, these people were not really migrants, but refugees – forced to leave since they are at risk staying in the home country, not strategically choosing Kiruna as a place to live, to be safe, or to come work at a mine. But still, here they are. As a municipal officer told us:
We have a situation with an [municipal] organization that is on its knees already before this [refugee crisis], with social welfare and the schools, all that goes on in the school world, with need of host families, with vulnerable children. All possible things, lack of teachers, lack of competence [staff with formal competence] at the social services, and then all of a sudden you are facing these things [the refugee crisis]. We don’t even have housing. It’s completely absurd. Ten, fifteen years ago we received money from the state to tear houses down. We could have used them now. But we got a hell of a lot of money to tear those houses down. Now we must start building houses and wherever we start planning, there are appeals against us to the dying days. Everybody wants houses but not next to me…
As we re-read more interviews, self-reflection leads to self-criticism: we didn’t ask about the refugee crisis further. Why didn’t we? What happened to the refugees? Did Kiruna and/or the mine managed to integrate some of them? We did not see them in the mine during our stay (then again we were not allowed inside the gates after November 2015) and we did not hear anybody talk about refugees getting work inside the gates. The mine, with all respect, seems to be an ‘white, predominately, male space’ (in our visits we could not spot any mine worker with other ethnicity, but among the cleaners some said there were). It might be the case that LKAB were helping out (with different resources), but it would be interesting to dig further into whether the company have an idea of viewing refugees as future miners.
This storyteller, born and raised in Kiruna, working as “Summerbird”, reflects on the image of the mine when growing up (the image heading the post is by artist Magnus Fredriksson).
It has been a very romanticized picture of the mine. The pride of working there. It was quite … It was awesome when you were a child, I remember going outside the gate, waiting for Dad to finish [work], and then Mom came and picked him up. So you thought: there is where I’d like to work. But you also got to hear this: ‘The dream factory’. Work is not that hard, a lot of money for not much work, and so on. So that’s what you could hear.
Every Summer, LKAB hires several hundreds of so-called “Summerbirds”; people – often young persons who have a break from their studies – that come in to work for a couple of months when ordinary staff are on vacation. As the trend of temporary workers is on the rise in general (although LKAB today work towards decreasing the use of ‘foreign services’), it is interesting to also turn the attention to the response from the unions on this issue. Talking to a Summerbird about this:
When I recently started working at SSAB [the steel plant in Luleå, as Summerbird], than we had a lecture. A person from the union came and talked [to us]. But we never had that at LKAB. Never. Not heard anything about it, not even mentioned to me…
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)
Next storyteller is one of the local ombudsmen for one of the unions. Our conversation is about how he keeps in contact with the members and what they are interested in. Below, he talks about how members tend to enrol the union in a rather short-sighted way:
The members are active when there is a wage movement. Or when jobs are threatened. Then they come. […] Very seldom do they come and say ‘what if we did it like this’, ‘what if we should start working with this instead’, you know, more forward-looking ideas. It just doesn’t work. Take an issue like their pensions. If I go and talk about pensions and the future, talking to a 25-years old, well, first, he hasn’t even heard of co-workers retiring. It’s so far away. They’re not interested in these issues. Those who are interested are those about to retire, but for them it is too late.
They’re not easy to find and haven’t been re-issued, the 4×400 pages doctoral dissertation in economic history by Ulf Eriksson, entitled “Gruva och arbete. Kiirunavaara 1890-1990” (in Swedish, translated as “Mine and work. Kiirunavaara 1890-1990”). Published and defended in 1991 at Uppsala University, Eriksson (from Kiruna) presents an impressive, predominantly empirical, labour process history from inside the gates of the Kiruna mine.
We have once again got our hands on somebody else’s copies and couldn’t help translate a section since it triggers thoughts on the particular and peculiar workplace an underground mine constitutes. Let’s face it, a mine is not a clothing factory. Just think about going down the Kiruna mine and find yourself on a road linked to a road network of about 600 km, all underground. This presents a spatially interesting challenge to the organising of work and management control. Below, Eriksson reflects upon the difficulty of identifying any clear cause-and-effect relations between the introduction and development of new technology and the way work was organised, and argues that the mountain itself shouldn’t be underestimated:
“The perhaps single most important reason for the lack of immediate and direct causality-arrows between technology and organisation was that an adjustment always had to be done to the specific nature of the object of work, that is, to the limitations set by the mountain and the ore body’s geographic and structural peculiarities for the organisation of work. This, for example, was actualised in the case of management’s possibilities to in practice direct and control the work.” (Eriksson 1991, part III: 152)
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].
Next storyteller is a man from Kiruna who have worked a long time above ground for the company, LKAB. During our conversation, the new CEO, Jan Moström, is brought up.
It’s turbulent because Moström, here he comes and, listen now, this is brilliant, because Moström is known as “The Butcher”, but no one has felt any butchering. I use to say in the sauna after [work], I use to say that ‘boys, have you noticed that Moström is a butcher?’. He just waves and cuts away all fat. He’s very good at facts, ‘this is how we’re doing’ or ‘this is how it looks’, and then just cuts away. No one points with the whole hand and says “Bloody idiots!”. He is very professional.
How do you notice this?
But that’s what I’m saying. I do notice it. People disappear, but no necessary people have disappeared. The best ones are still here. […]
If you were Moström and look at your own workplace, what would you do?
I wouldn’t not kick the poor man I just talked about [a man who ‘made sure the coffee pot was warm’]. I would ask what they would like to do. Ask where they would fit in. […] I would start with the weakest. Lets put it this way, you’re not stronger than the weakest link in the band.
Storyteller #14 is a man working above ground for over twenty years at LKAB in Kiruna. Below is an extract from our conversation where we talk about the worker collective and the role of the union.
– That time, around 1969/70 (the time of the big strike, spontaneously started by a worker in Svappavaara, not a strike organised by the union), when they began getting power over the workers, and when the union began being damn hollowed…
– That they are too weak?
– I think they are too weak.
– You mean that the workers will find other ways, just as they did in 69, when disappointed with…
– Today, I think the workers are rather tethered with rather demanding amortisations (a house or an apartment, a ski-doo etc.). They won’t strike. I don’t think so.
– They abide to…?
– You abide, I mean considering the debt burden they have, you see? Back then, you didn’t have a debt burden. It was more about surviving the day and putting food on the table. But today, you’ve lived so damn good for so many years. Especially if we think about those born in the 1990s who have now started to work for the company. They come directly from school, all of a sudden they have monthly salary of 30.000 (SEK). Hello?!
– Plus supplements?
– Plus supplements, you understand, it’s easy to get speed-blinded. And if you’re speed-blinded you accumulate debts. These guys who are, this is the perfect thing for the company, I mean those who remain after this “clean sweep” (lay-offs), the others have to sell the whole shebang, to someone, if there are someone who wants to buy.
– Yes, it’s a lot now. I mean, we can feel that, what you talked about previously, during 1969, then there were these old, time-study men who came down, too close and then a reaction. This wouldn’t happen now, not happen now.
– I’ve been part of the workers’ collective and been through at least three strikes, I think. 99 we had a strike, 2000 ah, when was it? 2002 or something like that, and then sometime around 2007. The thing is that in the works (above ground), we’ve never been prone to strike, but…
– I don’t know why. We’ve been quite satisfied with the situation and we’ve had it quite good here. We’ve worked our shifts, had our weeks off. But under ground, in some way, it has become, I don’t know really what it’s all about. The strikes have always started under ground. If they start them under ground and then there is no ore coming up to the works and the works stand still, it’s not until then that management start reacting: “Ah, there is no pellets. What the hell!” And who do they come to then? Well, not to the source, but to the last step in the production process: “Why do you stand still?” Well, then you simply say: “We have no ore.” But we’ve been damn good at showing solidarity up here in the works. We’ve always taken their (the strikers under ground) side. I don’t always even know why they strike.
Johan has read “Mining coal and undermining gender: rhythms of work and family in the American west” by Jessica Smith Rolston (Rutgers University Press, 2014). Here are some of his reflections:
At the outset of our project we knew that gender would play an important role, particularly given the history and context of the Kiruna mine (also for the Saskatchewan-case). There’s almost a mythology around the miner, a man of few words, with strong hands and a will to take risks in order to get the job done. For sure, many other mining areas share a similar myth. On occasions, we’ve also experienced stories and instances in Kiruna where this myth is reproduced, but the most common example is some sort of ‘light’ version of it, mixed up with more modern discourses on gender, equality and work environment. A lot has also happened since ‘men of high statue’ “founded” the mine in the late 1890s, but there is still a long way to go, as shown by Eira Andersson in her dissertation “Malmens manliga mysterium” (in Swedish, title translated: “The ore’s male mystery”, from 2012; see also the video-interview on gender and mining with professor Lena Abrahamsson on this blog from February 9, this year).
Reading Smith Rolston’s book gave a new dimension to gender and mining. Her in-depth ethnographic study of the coal mines in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin (the largest coal producer in the US) gives a contextual feel for, and a nuanced, almost positive, perspective on how gender is done and undone in the mines. I won’t attempt to cover the entire book here (visit her work-page to access references to her work and reviews of the book), but to share some of the thoughts, hopefully giving you reasons to pick up your own copy of the book!
The context, oh the context, it cannot be emphasised enough: it’s always important to ground studies in context. This book makes an excellent case of this. Gender is performed differently in this particular context (as compared for instance with the Appalachian mines, a recurrent comparative case in the book; in Sweden, we often direct our comparisons to Brazilian mines and, not surprisingly, we look quite good). Between 20-25% of those working in the Wyoming mines are women (this is higher than in any Swedish mine!) and this has been the case since the start of the mines in the late 1970s, partly explained by the region’s agrarian history and cultural context where both men, women and youth worked in the fields (making the person asking the question ‘why couldn’t a woman be a miner?’ look rather stupid – of course they can!). Several matters addressed throughout the book are recognisable in our studies, albeit with some contextual differences: great examples on how bodies matter in a gendered labour process (urinating, menstruation etc.), the rotation schedule and the context of work matter for the family-strong bonds created at work and the juggling act between work and home, being a non-unionised site matter for the relation between workers and workers-managers, enabling well-paid but low education jobs (“blue-collar aristocracy”) matters for the providing of family and for creating the opportunities for the kids to attend university (and thereby avoid ending up in the mines), and much more. I also like the emphasis in the book on how the miners talk to each other, how it matters in order to understand gender performances (the jargong and particularly the humor). One thing I missed was a more elaborative discussion on how career and recruitment were played out in practice, how gender was performed related to these issues.
Focusing on the method, the author has close ties to the worksites, the homes and the people, and, hence, to the phenomenon she is researching. It’s an inspiring ‘native ethnography’, making me think of the four days and three nights I spent at the McArthur River uranium mine in Saskatchewan. I left with the feeling of only scratching the surface of ‘what’s going here’, writing the lyrics for our song “Wolfpack” (on our Production album) on my trip back home. Reading Smith Rolston shows the benefits (as well as some of the challenges) from truly engaging with the field, even when it includes family.
Her father works in the mines she’s studying and she has also worked their during Summer, later spending a lot of time on site as a researcher. Epistemologically, the way she approaches the phenomenon is very interesting, enrolling all senses, on site, in order to understand gender performances. The empirical material is unique, giving me a feeling throughout the book of getting to know the people, their work-ethic, work culture, and how they balance work and family with a tough rotation schedule. This approach also create strong bonds with several of the persons studied. The author mentions that this creates a responsibility of not jeopardising their trust by painting outsiders (such as me) “negative portrayals” of the miners (which seems to be a common type of portrayal in the US according to the author; I think of a fiction book I read last year where this is the case, on Appalachian coal mining, “Grey mountain”, by John Grisham). This is an issue of representation, of how to communicate findings from the study that are scientifically interesting and relevant, while not necessarily being in agreement with, or seen as positive by, those studied. This balancing act goes on throughout the book and although the author is very transparent about it, I’d sometimes liked to have seen a more front-loaded treatment of issues-with-friction.
A feeling that occasionally came back throughout my reading was that although particular performances of “gender neutrality” could be argued, some of these nevertheless took place on an already gendered stage (there’s no “ungendered” space). In lack of better words, this meta-level of analysis could have played a more important role in some sections. I also lacked a more thorough treatment of the wider context, missing a deeper analyses beyond the local context, on the overall market context for the coal mining and how this is perceived by the miners. This also goes for the growing importance of sustainability issues, particularly the climate change debate and the role of coal in the work towards sustainability. It’s understandable that locals focus on the local context and natural environment, and that they take good care of it, loving their outdoors, but I imagine that they also have thought about, for example, climate change related to their work and off-work life. That is, just as much as I enjoyed reading about how the miners reflected on how people outside the area didn’t understand the importance of the coal mines for the supply of electricity in the US (a miner is quoted: “Half of every lightbulb in the U.S. is lit by coal… but a lot of people can’t think behind the wall”, p 31), I miss how they in turn reflected on how their idea of how work and place matter when focusing on how mining coal also risk undermining other places and people (past and future).