Going Mobile: Beyond the Glass Ceiling

"When I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut. Want to explore, want to see. See things that, wow, they exist in this world. Sense of adventure. My mother used to say if you're born here you don't have to be here, go to the world, see the world. There's lots to see."

Farukh is a camp cook in the Alberta oil sands. He got a taste of travel in his early 20s and was hooked. Having taken a diploma in hospitality management and a course in food preparation, he worked in restaurant and hotel jobs within India and Dubai for several years, including in a three-star hotel. In 2007, when Farukh was in his late twenties, he heard about a program where he could get a work permit as a temporary foreign worker in Canada. He talked to a recruiter, and after waiting a couple of months for a Labour Market Opinion to be approved, found himself on a three-year permit in a tourist hotel in Whistler, British Columbia. Because he was a skilled worker, Farukh would have the opportunity to sponsor his new wife after one year in Canada, and then to apply for permanent residence after three years.


Farukh liked his job in Whistler, and was able to get some good experience. It helped that his wife Aniilah was able to come as well. But after successfully obtaining his permanent residency, Farukh hit a glass ceiling and became stuck at assistant chef. A cousin living in Alberta urged him to try for a camp job in the oil sands. “He told me why are you not going to Fort Mac in the camp industry, right? So you will get more money plus the experience what you have, plus the education means I have my Journeyman here.” At first Farukh was skeptical – higher pay, but in a work camp dining hall? His friend assured him that the industry was desperate for good chefs, since “better food” was a new mantra in the bid to retain oil workers as the price of oil took off again.

Farukh applied, and before he knew it he was going back and forth on a schedule of 21 days on, 10 off. He now commutes from Regina where he and his family live. As is often the case with camp staff, Farukh can catch a free company flight from Edmonton or Calgary but otherwise transportation is on his own. “It’s a little bit hard because we have to manage each and everything by your own because my wife is not working anymore.” Sometimes he is able to get a cheap enough flight to Edmonton that it’s covered by the $280/month in travel allowance. Often it’s a redeye, followed by the morning flight up to Fort McMurray, which gets him there in time to start his 2 pm to 1 am shift in the kitchen. He has sometimes taken the bus from Regina to Edmonton when flights are pricey, but other times he just eats the extra cost – the price he gladly pays if it means being home with family one extra day.

Work-Family Relations: Providing and Adjusting

In 2014 or so, a few years after Farukh started his camp job in the oil sands, he and his wife Aniilah moved from BC to Red Deer (south of Edmonton) to cut down his commute time to Fort McMurray. For a short time this became doubly convenient, because Aniilah had also joined the long-distance commute. With a background in the service industry, she secured a front desk job at a camp down the road from Farukh owned by the same employer. For a few months the couple’s rotations were in sync, allowing them to enjoy ten days off together – sometimes they went back to their apartment in Red Deer, other times they went on short holidays. But about four months into this routine, the employer shifted Aniilah’s rotation and the couple found themselves having only a few overlapping days together at home each month. Then Aniilah got pregnant. The next step seemed like a no-brainer. Farukh’s job paid better, and he wanted Aniilah home with the baby. So, Aniilah quit her job as a mobile camp worker.

When Farukh and his wife first got their camp jobs, they toyed with the idea of moving to Fort McMurray. The camp where he worked was close enough that the daily commute would have been under an hour each way; hers was a bit further. “We could have moved into town and stayed in town and gone back and forth every night and had a resemblance of home life.” But it was just not viable financially, given that at the time, the average cost of a house in Fort McMurray was over $600,000. Once they knew that Aniilah was pregnant, there was the additional worry around what supports she would have as a new mother. His wife’s sister had immigrated to Canada and settled in Regina, Saskatchewan. At the end of the day, it made the most sense for his wife and baby to be near family, especially while he commuted back and forth for his three-week rotation – even if it meant commuting a bit further.

And so a domino effect of mobility ensued. They moved to Regina to accommodate both family stability and mobile work. And Farukh’s mother and father – more often, his mother – regularly travel from India for months at a time to help out with their daughter-in-law and their (now) two young children. “Without them, and Aniilah’s sister, I don’t know how we could do this. I see other men in camp with young children who are barely making it. Some have had to quit or lose their family. And some have lost their families. . .” Farukh hopes to sponsor his parents to come to Canada, but they are not yet sure they want to move. After all, two of their grown children and several grandchildren are home in India. In the interim, Farukh also sends money back home to support his parents and other relatives.

Each return home to Regina is both rejuvenating and challenging. First there is the trip itself: “Once you do your night shift – our going home time from here is one o’clock AM. You are always tired.” Then when Farukh walks in the door, he knows he might have half a day before his wife is saying “it’s your turn now with the kids.” They call it “daddy time.” Farukh says with a laugh that he sometimes feels like a “nanny” when he gets home – especially when his parents are not there to help. He knows that isn’t fair, but he is just so exhausted after 21 days of twelve-hour shifts in the camp kitchen.

Camp: "Like I'm in Prison"

Farukh counts the days of each rotation by carefully X-ing out days on a calendar in his room. “Like I’m in prison,” he says with a laugh. He likes that each time he wakes up or returns to his room, there is a visible, physical reminder that he will indeed be going home again to see his family.

He marks the passage of each day by when his shift begins and ends, and by his regular calls back home. Farukh confesses that sometimes he calls home out of a sense of duty, especially early in his rotation when it would just be easier to focus on work and shut out reminders of the outside world. But then other times, when he calls home hungry for news of his wife and their two young children, he can tell that she and/or the children are tired and he will not necessarily get the shot of joy he craves.

Farukh’s co-workers help to fill the gap. There is a small core of three or four cooks that have remained fairly constant over the last year. Sometimes they eat lunch together before the shift starts, lingering over coffee in the half hour before start of shift, talking about family or gossiping a bit about changes in camp working conditions. He doesn’t really know the other camp staff. Their shift and break times are different, so housekeepers tend to sit together at a set of tables in one corner of the dining hall, maintenance workers at another.

Work: Don't Rock the Boat

Farukh is rather grateful for his 2 pm to 1 am shift in the camp kitchen, since it means his sleep schedule is not too far off from a ‘regular’ one. But it also means he can be involved with both dinner prep and some of the breakfast and bag lunch prep that happens overnight. Dinner is one of his favourite times to work. He takes pride in helping tired, hungry oil workers ease the isolation of camp through “better food”. Farukh is not a strict practicing Muslim, but he helped convince his bosses to provide Halal foods for Islamic workers far from home, and during Ramadan he pops out of the kitchen to keep workers company as they pick up dinner after sunset; last year, this far north, that wasn’t until 10 pm.

Work has also had its challenges and frustrations. When Aniilah was put on a different rotation just a few months after they both started working in camp, the couple unsuccessfully tried to convince their respective managers to put them back in sync. “It was the same camp company, but different contracts and arrangements. I was so frustrated,” says Farukh. A seasoned colleague told him he should threaten a “duty to accommodate” case, but with Aniilah pregnant, and their citizenship pending, Farukh did not want to rock the boat.

When the oil downturn came a few years later, Farukh and Aniilah had a brief taste of living hand to mouth. With fewer guests in camp, the staff was shuffled and Farukh was let go. Thankfully, he was re-hired a few months later but by then he had lost the seniority he had fought so hard to earn. It felt like starting over, but Farukh said he still felt lucky, especially compared to the kitchen workers on temporary work permits. Many of them were laid off first when the downturn came. Having come to Canada as a temporary foreign worker himself, Farukh could understand the double vulnerability of citizenship status and oil bust. But really, it was a triple burden, given linguistics and racial barriers. “Sometimes the head chef, a white guy from BC, would tell them ‘Speak English!’ And me, I speak English and I’m a citizen, but sometimes I felt like I was still a foreigner. But still, now I have lots of Canadian experience I can take to other jobs.”

Exiting: Conflicted Dreams

Farukh solidified his chance to stay in Canada by working very hard to pass the Red Seal exam for chefs during his first six months in BC. Now, he dreams of using those skills in new ways and in places of his own choosing. Being a mobile worker with a young family is not the same as traveling here and there for work as you wish. It’s also not the same as having your own restaurant – a place where people choose to eat rather than being a captive audience in a remote work camp dining hall. Sometimes on his commutes back and forth, Farukh dreams about a restaurant, sketching out plans for the layout and the menu.

Maybe when his kids are older, says Farukh, he might leave this work; his wife sure wants him to. But Farukh is clearly conflicted. One of the last things he says is, “As long as there is camp work, I will do this.”

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