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More migrant workers in the Arctic

Working on isolated mining sites has been part of the Arctic reality for the last century or more. The access-related problems often relating to an inadequate infrastructure endowment continue however to have a significant impact here. Similarly the 'fly-in/fly-out' nature of the workforce in the North Sea oil production sector is long and well established. Indeed, it is increasingly likely that this model will now be expanded to other areas of economic activity in the far North.

Polish workers at the hydropower plant outside Sisimiut in Greenland. Many of them previously worked in Iceland. Photo: Ístak

Polish workers at the hydropower plant outside Sisimiut in Greenland. Many of them previously worked in Iceland. Photo: Ístak

In the resources sector many national and international companies operate with demands that the workforce work on shifts for roster periods of various times. Due to the temporary character of the resource extraction business – typically the duration of mining and oil extraction activities is around 30 years – it is too expensive for the company to establish a "real" town. The alternative is usually the construction of some temporary lodging establishment for the workers while at the same time ensuring that the necessary 'fly-in/fly-out' facilities are in place.

The involvement of local communities' in large scale industrial projects across the Arctic also differs greatly. In relation to the recent establishment of the Alcoa aluminium smelter in Fjarðaál in Eastern Iceland only 20-25% of the labour force originated from Iceland. Two thirds of these people were from the adjacent communities. Many of the other workers – mostly the Poles – went on to Greenland, participating in the construction of the hydropower plant north of Sisimiut. Before coming to Iceland many of them had also been part of the team constructing the Norwegian Snøhvit gas production facilities in the Barents Sea. Another example is the Prudhoe Bay oil field in northern Alaska. Here the majority of workers came from other parts of the state, mostly from the larger towns in Alaska. However around one third were from outside Alaska.

Until recently, in connection with the exploitation of natural resources in Russia's high north the policy was to plan and develop full-scale cities in the region. Indeed, most of the Arctic's larger settlements were established as cities for workers during the last century, expanding at a particularly fast rate during the 1960s and 1970s. As such, the vast majority of the population in the Russian Arctic has historically lived in large urban centres.

The situation has however changed markedly in recent decades. When the resources which were the original magnet for the settlement were depleted or found to be too unprofitable to continue to extract, the communities based on them found it increasingly difficult to survive. Newer arenas for exploitation like hydrocarbons and strategic minerals, usually take place far from these established communities. Ensuring the availability of a qualified workforce in such places is however not only a major economic issue but also a significant social one also.

Vakhtoviki in North-western Siberia: One solution to this problem is the so-called 'Vakhtoviki arrangement' which involves long-distance commute workers. It is not unusual to travel several thousand kilometres by train or by airplane to and from work. Typically it involves a one day-trip by airplane or up to seven days by train.

Often these long distance commuters will have to stay one or several days in base towns, and eventually go to the work site for shift roster such as 60/30, i.e. sixty days work followed by thirty days on leave. The base camps often offer shops, recreational facilities etc., while the field camps are only meant for working and sleeping. One well known example of such an arrangement is the Novy Urengoy gas fields, but many similar arrangements are now being put in place.

In recent years, such activities have increased to such a degree that a special homepage has been developed. Such arrangements are usually advantageous for the companies involved because they can quickly and cheaply construct temporary camps which then give them access to a stable workforce. For many workers it is also a good choice as it provides the possibility of remaining among family and friends in urban centres and of securing the family a stable income.

This model does however have a number of potentially undesirable consequences. In the case of the Red Dog mine, near Kotzebue in Alaska, the Regional Development Corporation quickly saw the possibility of ensuring stable incomes in the smaller North Slope communities. The knock on effect of this was however that with stable incomes the local inhabitants saw the opportunity to ensure that their children received a better education, an education which was only available in the larger towns. This eventually led to rural depopulation as the workers moved, primarily to the Alaskan capital, Anchorage.

Rasmus Ole Rasmussen

Senior Research Fellow