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Coronavirus

Unvaccinated NWT mine workers being sent on unpaid leave

Last modified: October 2, 2021 at 9:55am


Workers at major mines in the Northwest Territories are being told to provide proof of Covid-19 vaccination before their next rotation or face unpaid leave for three months.

Four workers – one at Diavik and three at Ekati – told Cabin Radio they had received letters from their employees stating they must prove they are vaccinated before anticipated federal air travel restrictions are enacted. Otherwise, they will be suspended without pay.

All four are unvaccinated. They requested anonymity to discuss an issue about which their employer had not authorized them to speak.

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“I’m really upset about it,” one worker said. “I’m stressed out like you wouldn’t believe. I mean, that’s my livelihood.”

“I’m absolutely sick about it,” said another. “I’ve been at Diavik for 18 years now, going on 19, and they’re forcing me to resign from my position … no severance, no goodbye.”

Transport Canada announced in August plans to begin restricting travel on federally regulated commercial airlines so that only fully vaccinated passengers can take those flights. Health Canada defines full vaccination as two doses of an authorized vaccine with the second dose received at least 14 days before travel.

An official date for that vaccination requirement has not yet been set. In a news release, the federal government said the change was expected “as soon as possible in the fall and no later than the end of October.”

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Ekati, Diavik, and Gahcho Kué, the three active diamond mines in the NWT, rely on chartered flights to transport workers to and from their mine sites.

Transport Canada would not confirm whether its vaccination requirements will apply to chartered flights. A spokesperson for the federal agency simply stated: “All details will be announced in due course.”

According to the workers, both Diavik and Ekati have said their new proof-of-vaccination requirements for employees are in anticipation of federal vaccine requirements for their charter flights.

A spokesperson for Rio Tinto, which operates Diavik, said the company “will comply with any mandates issued by the GNWT and/or Government of Canada.”

Terry Kruger, a spokesperson for the De Beers Group – which operates the Gahcho Kué diamond mine – said the same change was being made at Gahcho Kué “in line with the announcement by the federal government that full vaccination will likely be required for travel on commercial and charter aircraft in Canada from October 31.”

Cabin Radio tried several times to reach the Arctic Canadian Diamond Company, which operates Ekati, but did not receive a response.

‘This is how we survive’

Collectively, the workers – who vary in seniority – believe nearly 100 employees at Diavik and 200 at Ekati may be placed on leave due to the new requirements. Those estimates could not be independently verified by Cabin Radio and mine spokespeople did not provide figures.

The companies have said they will be “re-evaluating the employment status” of suspended staff after three months, according to the four workers. What that re-evaluation entails was not immediately clear.

One worker pointed out that being placed on unpaid leave means those affected cannot access employment insurance, which requires a formal layoff.

“People all over the North, this is how we survive,” that worker said. “This is forcing us to do this or we just sit back and starve, basically.

“It’s not cheap, living in the North. Our groceries are more expensive, our heat, our power. Everything is way more expensive for us. These mine jobs are very important for a lot of people to survive and to look after their children, and stuff like that.”

Another worker acknowledged several previously unvaccinated colleagues had decided to receive the Covid-19 vaccine so they would not be placed on leave.

“There are a lot of people concerned with this,” they said. “I talked to people on WhatsApp… there are probably about 20 or 30 people on it right now, and they’re all talking about the same thing. What are we going to do?

“Everybody just feels lost.”

The Union of Northern Workers, which represents some northern mine workers, did not respond to a request for comment. Two workers said they felt the union was not supporting them. (The UNW has consistently and vocally supported vaccination against Covid-19, in line with Health Canada’s statement that vaccines are “very effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalization, and death from Covid-19.”)

Same policy used elsewhere

Both Rio Tinto and De Beers said strict safety and hygiene practices such as mask-wearing, sanitizing, isolation, and rapid testing have been in place for some time.

However, Kruger at De Beers said the pandemic nevertheless continued to pose a health risk to workers.

“Even with more than 85 percent of employees at the mine fully vaccinated, the threat of Covid-19 to the health of the unvaccinated portion of the workforce is extremely serious,” he wrote.

“As an example, in response to the ongoing outbreak in the Northwest Territories over the past few weeks, we have had to ask a significant number of NWT employees to stay home because of the increased risk of bringing Covid-19 to the mine site.”

Gahcho Kué reported the equivalent of around 600 jobs at the mine site in 2020. Taking Kruger’s figure of more than 85 percent being fully vaccinated, it’s possible that dozens of Gahcho Kué workers could still be affected by the new policy.

On its website, Ekati owner Arctic Canadian says approximately 1,800 employees and contractors work at the mine. Rio Tinto, which operates Diavik, says on its website the mine employees around 1,100 people. Even if present employment figures are reduced owing to the pandemic’s economic impact, an assumption that 10 percent of each workforce is unvaccinated – a figure that’s in line with, or more conservative than, past statements from those mines – would suggest unpaid leave could be a prospect for 200 people or more at the two sites.

A spokesperson for Rio Tinto said: “Since the beginning of the pandemic we have strongly encouraged our employees to get vaccinated, as it is recommended by Public Health as the best protection against symptoms and spread of Covid-19,” they wrote.

Over the past few months, varying forms of vaccine mandate have been introduced across Canada.

On Monday, the GNWT announced all territorial government staff who work with vulnerable members of the public must be fully vaccinated by November 30. A vaccine passport for the general public has not yet been mandated.

Unpaid leave is being employed elsewhere . A hospital in Ottawa has introduced a similar policy, while the US federal government says it will first place unvaccinated staff on unpaid leave, then terminate their employment if their vaccination status does not change.

Workers do not have to be vaccinated if they receive a medical exemption, which employers must accommodate under the Human Rights Act.

However, Charles Dent, chair of the Northwest Territories Human Rights Commission, told the CBC “having a personal belief” about the vaccine is not grounds for a complaint under the act.

Ollie Williams contributed reporting.

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