Unappealing student work seems a necessary component of higher education for millenials, forcing young adults to move further away from home to seek better opportunities for personal and professional growth. Those who seek seasonal work and do not fall into the student category, however, often face the same unfair, precarious work experiences that are justified as unskilled labour.
As it becomes harder to find work in Ontario, many of the province’s residents are migrating seasonally to work in Western provinces that are host to a wealth of different construction companies. The Globe & Mail recently looked at Stats Canada and declared that employment in construction is at a record high, while it is also a fairly well-known fact that employers in Fort McMurray, Alberta can never hire enough people to work in the oil sands industry.
My personal experience as a flag person–aka traffic control–over the summer managed to live up to my expectations yet simultaneously shock me. I knew going in that I was going to be roughing it: living in dingy hotels, surviving on fast food and frequently having to go to the washroom outside. But I certainly didn’t expect that I would have to wait 8 hours for a pee break, or 3 and a half weeks to go to a grocery store so that I could have proper lunches for my long 13-16 hour days.
I worked mainly in Manitoba over the summer for a company that was based out of Alberta. Unfortunately most of the contracts were pretty far north in the province, and the whole crew had a rough time with the living conditions through no particular fault of the company. My experience started off fairly well: we had two days worth of safety training and a brief orientation, and then it was off to work.
A normal day of flagging consists of stopping traffic and waiting for a pilot vehicle to come lead cars through the work zone. When there is a competent supervisor/foreman team, the flagger isn’t left standing for more than a couple of hours at a time before there is a half hour break to drive the pilot vehicle.
Although with a more experienced foreman there were more breaks, there were several injustices that occurred over the span of the 4 months that I worked out there, most of which occurred within a gendered context. Most of the flaggers that worked with this company were young women, and I would say about half of them were also students needing a summer job. The most obvious way in which sexism plays out is in the actual work itself: flagging is taken to be an inherently feminine job because it doesn’t require much skill or strength. In fact, male flaggers are often seen as less masculine and unable to pull their weight in any labouring behind the truck.
During one job, a flagger had to walk behind the production truck and the labourers, holding the slow sign towards oncoming traffic. Whenever there was a pause in production, I would get the labourers to hold my sign so that I could try doing some of their work: shoveling concrete, mopping the wet pavement. Although it required slightly more strength than flagging (keeping in mind that flaggers also have to lift heavy signs and gas cans), the guys rotated tasks enough that no single person was left with a strenuous activity for too long. I could imagine myself doing it.
Ask any other worker about getting the chance to labour at this company as a female–at a $6/hour pay increase–and they’ll laugh in your face. I was frequently told that the company did not hire female labourers for a reason, that most of them simply weren’t strong enough to perform the tasks. I wasn’t the only one who felt that this was a lame excuse.
“If given the opportunity, I feel like girls would try harder, they would care more.” I’m sitting having a coffee with my former co-worker, Veronica*, asking her how she felt about her flagging experience. “As a flagger you’re not expected to live up to much, but it’s both mentally and physically tiring. You have to be able to diffuse situations, you have to be able to keep yourself awake…the stress gets to everyone.”
I think for myself, one of the biggest physical challenges of flagging was the difficulty in staying mentally stimulated. People don’t realize that flagging requires a certain amount of creativity and discipline, as well as unappreciated kinds of intelligence like spatial sense and ideas about the ways in which motorists think and act.
Another girl I worked with, Lisa*, also had trouble with the physical and mental demands of the job: “We would normally work 13-15 hour days, flagging the entire time, which I had somewhat expected…but normally we would not get any breaks. We didn’t have time to eat our lunch and usually didn’t even get five minutes to use the washroom. It was extremely frustrating and tiring.”
*Names have been changed*
Lisa brings up a valid point when it comes to human rights violations. Occasionally drivers would talk to me on the road while I had them stopped and the first things they asked me were always, “Are you bored?” or “How do you guys go to the washroom?” I grew used to going in between the doors of the pilot truck, but closer to the end of the season when we had an inexperienced foreman, there were times when the pilot truck was not in use and we would be standing on the road with no washroom breaks for hours. On one occasion, one of the production truck drivers relieved me from my post out of sympathy and we were both in trouble.
During some digging I discovered other flaggers’ distaste in the lack of washroom break allowances. On the Facebook group “FLAGGERS AGAINST SPEEDING”, one member stated that she had “trained [her] body not to pee” but notes the damage that repressing one’s natural bodily impulses does. “My best friend almost died of kidney failure due to not peeing and working for 16/hrs per shift…. she made multiple comments to her dispatch and nothing happened….. she found herself in the hospital with renal (Kidney) Failure….. And her boss still didn’t stand behind her.” I can certainly vouch that this is a common occurrence, and I have also witnessed supervisors and other workers laughing about it like it’s some sort of joke. It’s not uncommon to hear phrases like, “Screw them, they can stand there.”
Veronica thinks this stems from the overall attitude that comes with flagging. “It’s a job nobody else wants so they just stick you there…we’re supposed to just do our job and not say anything.” This goes hand in hand with flagging as a feminine occupation. It is expected that flaggers will not go against authority, and there is the implicit expectation to stay quietly subordinate in order to let the big boys do the important stuff. Flagging is an afterthought: a necessary component of construction, yet a job where one is easily replaced.
It’s this idea of replacement that keeps employers and the public alike from caring too much about flagger safety and almost forgetting about basic human rights. Reading online, I found many instances of flaggers injured and killed on the job, and in most cases the flagger is blamed for being distracted or turning their backs to traffic, and the motorists who hit them get off nearly scot free. Fines for speeding through construction zones are not high enough: $150 tickets with no deducted demerit points will certainly not deter people. Lisa agrees: “I do not think enough is being done to ensure drivers slow down when approaching or driving through a work zone. When I was flagging, I ran into a handful of situations with people who claimed that they did not see any of our construction signs.”
So is it up to the government or the employer to ensure worker safety? Both of my co-workers think that it is a mix of responsibility between the two, a joint initiative. “When it comes down to it, the employer needs to be absolutely sure that their workers are safe. I think they need to constantly keep an eye on them and stay in contact,” says Lisa. Veronica is more concerned about the enforcement of major safety laws, like ensuring that flaggers don’t have to work after dark without sufficient lighting, a law I saw broken more than once.
At the end of the day it is up to everyone–including workers–to ensure workplace safety, but this can only be achieved when there is a true awareness of what traffic control as a job actually entails. Flaggers need to start receiving and expecting proper washroom and mental breaks on the job, as well as public justice for negligence on behalf of the public, the government, and the companies that employ them.
Because construction is a growing field in Canada’s employment sector, it is crucial that some awareness is raised about the demands within these jobs, and hopefully then there will be less fatalities and workers will feel more comfortable speaking out against these injustices.