COVID-19 and Canada’s mobile labour force

Published 7 July 2020 / By Barbara Neis, Kerri Neil, Katherine Lippel

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Constraining mobility is a core element of COVID-19 infection prevention and control. Since mid-March 2020, Canadians have been told the best way to control the pandemic is for them to go home and stay home. However, an immobilised population requires access to essential goods and services including health and home care, food, manufacturing (as for medical supplies), construction and maintenance, and transportation services for goods and people who are still mobile.

Over the past 8 years, the On the Move Partnership (OTM) has examined patterns and consequences of work-related mobility for what we call the Mobile Labour Force. This is the roughly 16% of the Canadian labour force who engage in complex/extended daily mobility, travel to other regions or provinces/territories for work, as well as transportation and fisheries workers and international labour migrants who are brought to Canada for work in multiple sectors. We present here key insights from the OTM COVID-19 and the Mobile Labour Force series, a working paper and set of blogs linking insights from media coverage and policy documents to OTM research findings.

These key insights include a reminder that complex/extended labour mobility is challenging at the best of times. In the context of COVID-19, international and internally mobile workers can be exposed during their journeys to work (particularly if they travel in crowded public and private transit), as well as at work and, where relevant while living at work (as in work camps), and can take the virus home to their families and communities. Travel options have declined; travel-related uncertainty, costs and time have increased with COVID-19 for many. In the context of federal and provincial reliance on border closures and border controls to manage mobility-related risks of infection, those whose work takes them across international and provincial borders face particular challenges.

Temporary foreign workers (TFWs) who play crucial roles in Canadian agriculture, food processing and care work can be stopped by temporary border closures in their home country, at the Canadian border and at provincial borders. For example, New Brunswick recently blocked the use of temporary foreign workers in that province. Requirements for self-isolation and social distancing for TFWs when they arrive at their worksites are highlighting well-documented problems with overcrowded and poor-quality housing in agriculture. Workplace conditions such as crowded production lines and ventilation issues at meat processing facilities have contributed to some of Canada’s biggest outbreaks starting with workers and spreading into the community. In High River, Alberta, these hazards were compounded by shared housing and transportation among low-income workers with vulnerable statuses.

Interprovincial workers are affected by provincial border controls including the need to show they are doing essential work and, for some, the requirement to self-quarantine in the work province/territory before they go to work and, for many, after they return home. As discussed in Sara Dorow’s blog, for those fly-in/fly-out (FIFO) and drive-in/drive-out (DIDO) workers who rotate in and out of provinces COVID-19 measures can prevent them from travelling or going to work if they are symptomatic. It is also leading to longer rotations and less time being spent with families, contributing to already serious mental health risks among workers and their communities. Those who live in camps can be at high risk of infection and, as shown by the tracking of those from the Kearl Lake camp in Alberta, of transferring that infection to multiple provinces and often remote communities.

COVID-19 media coverage has brought to the foreground documented problems with Canada’s system of long term care including crowding, extensive reliance on temp agencies and relatively low-paid workers who have had to take multiple jobs in order to make a living. Mobility between worksites has contributed to the risk of the spread of infection and resulted in some measures to limit employment to one workplace and a wage top-up, but not all workers are covered by these measures.

As indicated in Natasha Hanson’s blog, truckers are considered essential but require access to basic infrastructure to support their mobility including places to rest, to eat and to take breaks when they are not working and on the road. Access to this infrastructure was disrupted in the early days of the lockdown. Desai Shan’s blog shows how seafarers have been immobilised on their vessels without access to shore leave and with contracts extended beyond normal maximum lengths preventing them from returning home to be with their families. This puts them at risk of fatigue-related casualties and can have severe effects on their mental health.

As Tim Cresswell explains in his recent blog, the pandemic has exposed key vulnerabilities that come with embracing the hyper-mobility of goods, services and people as the fundamental premise of the world as we know it. A key source of vulnerability is that often the necessity and dynamics of work-related mobility are poorly understood and anticipated by policymakers resulting in tardy, piecemeal interventions, enhanced risk of infection, and enhanced challenges for mobile workers, their families and communities. Better knowledge about who is on the move, why, where to, using what means of transportation, under what conditions, with what rights and with what consequences for the workers and their families, employers and communities would have better prepared us for managing the work-related mobility that is still happening, including its impact on the spread of the virus.

Earlier and more systematic attention to documented vulnerabilities associated with mobile work, such as problems with housing, working conditions, and support infrastructure, would have made it easier and safer for them to continue doing the work needed to provide the goods and services essential to effective pandemic responses, including making it feasible, for those of us who can, to go home and stay home.

This article is co-published with Routed: Migration and (Im)mobility Magazine in its special issue of “Epidemics, labour and mobility


Barbara Neis is Project Director for the On the Move Partnership, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and by InnovateNL. She is John Lewis Paton Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Sociology, Memorial University of Newfoundland and specializes in research on work and mobility and occupational health with a focus on rural and remote coastal communities. 

Kerri Neil  is Communications Coordinator for the On the Move Partnership. She helps facilitate communications within the partnership team and between the partnership and the larger community.

Katherine Lippel is Professor and Distinguished Research Chair in Occupational Health and Safety Law in the Faculty of Law (Civil Law Section) at the University of Ottawa. She specializes in research on regulatory issues related to occupational health and safety and workers’ compensation.

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