Written by Sydney Lang, 3L, McGill Law School
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the experiences of a variety of workers to the forefront, especially those who have been deemed to work in an “essential service.” This includes construction and resource work in remote areas, most of which relies on a Fly-in/Fly-out (FIFO) workforce. FIFO workers may be particularly susceptible to the virus, as cross-community / cross-provincial travel and shared accommodations are a part of the job. However, like other employment relationships, this pandemic has revealed, and perhaps exacerbated, existing challenges facing FIFO workers across Canada, specifically as it relates to the precarious nature of the work itself.
What is Fly-in/Fly-out work?
FIFO workers are workers who do not live near the place where they work and instead, fly in. A FIFO workforce is common at mining and extractive projects that operate in remote areas, for example, in parts of Alberta’s oil sands and in the Yukon. FIFO workers work on a shift rotation, usually 2-weeks on site and 2-weeks at home, and stay in company accommodations (“work camps”) when they are on site. A company’s decision to rely on a FIFO workforce may be based on the availability of skilled workers and the flow of work at each stage of the project, among other things.
FIFO and COVID-19
Large industrial mining and construction projects were deemed “essential services” by many provincial governments. This maintained the flow of FIFO workers between communities and provinces. Many remote communities fear that an outbreak at a nearby work camp could significantly overburden local health facilities, putting residents and workers alike at risk (see, for example, the Teck plant in British Columbia).
Once workers at work camps in Alberta’s oil sands began testing positive for COVID-19 (for example, at the Kearl Lake project), some companies suspended operations to protect employees and residents in nearby communities. Marathon Gold closed its Valentine Gold operation in Newfoundland for maintenance, and Vale put its Voisey Bay operation in Labrador on care and maintenance. Other projects have made adjustments to maintain operations. British Columbia, Alberta, and the Yukon have issued additional guidelines for work camps during COVID-19 to ensure the health and safety of FIFO workers. Some companies have simply extended the duration of shift rotations to reduce changeover, where there is a higher risk of contamination.
While the pandemic has introduced new challenges to employers who rely on FIFO workers, it has also magnified existing problems faced by this transient workforce.
The hazards of mobility
Work in the mining, oil, and gas industry is inherently precarious: it is an industry that is characterized by its booms and busts, which has implications for the job security of its workforce. A contributor to the 2017 Mobile Worker Guide in the Yukon notes:
Learning how to deal with an unstable salary and uncertainties about the length of your job contract is key to coping with today’s conditions in the mining industry. It is of paramount importance to be flexible in terms of skills, further your training and be prepared to be mobile in times of busts. 
This means that FIFO work in itself, and the need for a mobile workforce, is ultimately a response to industry-wide precarity.
In a recent working paper, Barbara Neis, Kerri Neil, and Katherine Lippel explore the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mobile labour force in Canada. They find that the pandemic has exemplified how “work organization that relies on a mobile workforce transfers the hazards of mobility to the workers.”  These mobility-related hazards may fall outside of an individual employer-employee relationship and are thus seldom considered in an employer’s risk assessments. This is illustrated clearly in the case of health care workers whose precarious conditions of employment required that they seek work at different facilities. Their travel between facilities was not considered by employers when assessing risks to worker and patient health and safety, which made it difficult to track potential exposure to COVID-19.
The case of FIFO is less clear, as employers play an active role in facilitating the mobility of their employees: employers tend to pay for and plan aspects of this required travel. Case law within the realm of workplace safety and insurance suggests that a FIFO worker is considered to be “at work” while travelling from home to a work site and back (see Decision No. 1966/18R, 2019 ONWSIAT 1345 and 2015-0594 (Re), 2015 CanLII 51023 (AB WCAC). While it seems that the hazards of mobility are thus borne by the FIFO employer, we might also consider the impacts of this travel that continue to fall to the employee.
The impact of FIFO work on mental health
A 2018 report conducted for the Western Australia Mental Health Commission found that there is a “greater risk of mental health amongst those workers operating under FIFO work arrangements.”  Since these risks stem from the structure of FIFO work itself, notably the inherent mobility of workers, similar issues likely impact FIFO workers in Canada. These issues include fatigue from long work hours, a lack of control over accommodations, isolated working conditions, and challenges in transitioning between site and home.
Last year, the Australian government released a Code of Practice regarding the mental health of FIFO workers to address the aforementioned risks. These guidelines seem promising in recognizing the wide-spread issues that impact the mental health of FIFO workers. The Code also identifies ways that employers can better support and accommodate employees. Despite these promises, Australian unions are concerned that changes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are not in compliance with the Code, specifically that extended shift rosters will have negative impacts on workers’ mental health and the needs of their families.
It is likely that work in mining, oil, and gas will become increasingly unstable, considering the impact of the pandemic on the global economy and oil prices, but also as domestic economies transition away from fossil fuels. It is thus likely that employers will continue to rely on the flexibility of a FIFO workforce. It is important that provincial governments identify and assess mental health risks that emerge through FIFO work, and take steps to implement guidelines for employers, taking leadership from the Australian model. However, as we have seen in Australia during the current pandemic, a Code of Practice may not be enough. While guidelines may improve working conditions for FIFO workers, the majority of the mental health risks identified above stem from the FIFO work structure itself, which relies on worker flexibility and geographical mobility. Alongside recent developments regarding the protection of Foodora workers, we must continue to think critically about the connection between precarity and work that is dependent on worker travel, and the developments in labour law and policy required to fully protect emerging mobile workforces.
Sydney Lang, “A Crisis of Mobility: The Inherent Precarity of the Fly-In, Fly-Out Workforce” Canadian Law of Work Forum (May 23 2020): http://lawofwork.ca/?p=12547