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Success eludes recent migrants as Fort McMurray braces for TFW fallout Add to ...

Fort Mac: A year-long project about Fort McMurray, Alta., which has come to be the emblem of Canada's energy sector, and all the issues that surround it. 

At 5-foot-2, Mucharata Minog David is half the height of one of her truck tires, but she has always dreamed big, and that’s how she got a new life and a six-figure salary hauling oil sand.

“I’m a tough princess,” says the 37-year-old Philippines native.

Ms. David, who became a Canadian citizen six months ago, likes to explain how she parlayed a guest-worker gig as a nanny into her job as a heavy-equipment operator. Now, she drives some of the world’s biggest trucks for Syncrude, such as the Liebherr-T282, a vehicle strong enough to haul 70 elephants and as big as a two-storey home.

“Ambition is a mindset,” she says, reflecting on her decade in Fort McMurray.

Ms. David is one of the early cohort of temporary foreign workers from the 2000s who found long-term success. However, today’s tighter federal policies are forcing employers to stop issuing paycheques to TFWs and start buying them tickets home.

This makes finding the good life a much taller order for newer arrivals.

March Bacay, a 30-year-old homeless man, walks out of the -20 cold and into a Salvation Army shelter downtown. He is also from the Philippines, but unlike Ms. David, has a few months remaining in Canada.

“It’s hard to find a job for a temporary foreign worker [TFW] like me – no skills, my work is just a cashier,” he says. “The government, they don’t care.”

For more than a decade, migrant workers have kept Alberta communities such as Fort McMurray humming. Because the municipality’s unemployment rate has long been below 4 per cent, the city’s businesses have paid premiums for low-skilled labour as city residents headed out to high-paying jobs in the oil sands.

According to new rules announced by Employment Minister Jason Kenney in June, businesses have to get down to a maximum work force of 20 per cent TFWs by summer, and 10 per cent by 2016. This could reduce the low-wage TFW work force “by 50 per cent in the next three years,” according to a government statement.

In Fort McMurray, that policy carries a high cost – for businesses, workers, and consumers.

Every day at the Tim Hortons drive-through, a double lineup of pickup trucks pours out and clogs a lane on busy Thickwood Boulevard.

Never able to serve up coffee fast enough, the franchise managers say they have no choice but to cut hours of operation as they are forced to send TFWs packing.

“We already stopped building a new store … as we have no one to work it,” the director of operations wrote this fall to his Member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta (MLA).

The letter, published by local media, said TFWs account for 75 of the city’s 200 Tim Hortons employees – a ratio that is dropping fast.

The MLA for Fort McMurray-Conklin, Don Scott, says he and others have been asking Ottawa to cut Northern Alberta businesses some slack, so they don’t have to ratchet down the numbers of TFWs as rapidly.

“I’ve talked to several employers who are facing challenges in this region … they just cannot find the labour that they need to go forward.”

Some hotels in Fort McMurray had up to 80 per cent TFWs, says Sara Dorow, a University of Alberta sociologist, who has spent years studying the city’s work force.

While there are no precise statistics on the number of migrant workers in the city, she adds she fears plummeting crude price may accelerate the shedding of staff.

Some migrant workers around town are frustrated by the lack of opportunities.

“If you lose your job, it’s not easy to find another one,” Mr. Bacay says.

Over a coffee at a downtown diner, he explains how he left a better-paying job in Saudi Arabia to work as a cashier in Canada.

Arriving two years ago, his hope was that he would make a foothold for his family.

But that all changed when he got fired by a boss who he says told him “you have attitude.”

Now Mr. Bacay’s work permit says he has to leave in August – and it’s been months since he managed to send any money back home to his seven siblings.

No one in the Philippines blames him for bad luck, he says. “You know what my Mom tells me?’ God has blessed me because I have you.’ ”

He says that when he arrived in Fort McMurray, he had paid $500 monthly to rent a room shared with two others. After he was terminated as a cashier, he said he jumped through hoops to get a job at a far-away assembly line – but that work dried up, too. Now Mr. Bacay is back in Fort McMurray, stuck with papers saying he is supposed to still be looking for work in High Prairie, a six-hour drive away.

Last summer, Mr. Bacay says he slept outdoors near Keyano College, a trade school on the outskirts of downtown.

That same school provided a very different kind of opportunity for Ms. David – it was where she learned how to operate industrial vehicles.

The Philippines is Canada’s top source country for TFWs, though most workers get jobs in Asia or the Middle East first.

“We always use Hong Kong as our stepping stone,” explains Ms. David, sipping a grande caramel macchiato.

In 2004, she says she was an overworked nanny in Hong Kong. Then she snuck into a Canadian consulate while on a grocery run.

In 2008, she got her Class 5 Alberta driver’s licence and brokered a deal with her employers – she would care for their children for a few extra months if they could open doors for her in the oil sands.

Now she’s a homeowner – she bought a two-storey house for $799,000 a few years back, where she lives with her Canadian boyfriend and her teenage son.

People in her community often ask her how she secured the good life.

“I tell them all you have to do is work hard and be patient and always wear a smile,” she says.

“We don’t want to get fired … So we have to be nice.”

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