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Labour costs: Canadian miners see modest pay raises

'It’s labour mobility and skills, not just costs.'
Wages at mines in Canada rose by three per cent over the past year, a Costmine Intelligence survey shows | Morsa Images/E+/Getty Images

Hourly wages at mines in Canada climbed at less than half the rate of salaries at top jobs, a new survey shows.  

The annual pay for a mine general manager rose 11% to $282,900 while the hourly wage for a mill control room operator, the costliest wage position, increased 4.3% to $46.96, according to surveys by Costmine Intelligence, a unit of The Northern Miner Group.  

Inflation in Canada hit a 40-year high last year of 6.8% on an annual average basis, according to Statistics Canada. This year it has eased, reaching 4% in August. However, higher prices continue to impact consumers and wage negotiations. In the Canadian auto sector, union Unifor and Ford agreed in September on a new contract increasing wages by as much as 25%. In mining, COVID-19 material supply chain snags have subsided while labour concerns are less about pay than availability.

“It’s labour mobility and skills, not just costs,” Doug Groh, who manages and co-manages more than US$1 billion for Sprott Asset Management, said by phone from New York where he’s based. “It’s still a challenge to find the skill set out there that’s dependable and capable to do the jobs. 

“This has forced operators to become more reliant on outside contractors which adds another layer of cost and isn’t always the most efficient way to improve productivity over the longer term.”  

Of the 76 mines responding to this year’s survey between March and August, 59 were union and 17 were non-union. Of those, 62 mines increased wages by an average of 3%, ranging from 1.5% to 12.5%, in the 12 months before the survey. Wages were unchanged at 14 mines while no mines in the survey reduced wages.  

Of note among the hourly pay reported, one company is paying underground miners $100 an hour, far more than any others. The survey withholds names, but we can say it’s a gold mine. 

“Employee retention is a problem for some northern Canadian projects and this is causing salary inflation,” Michael Gray, a mining analyst at Agentis Capital in Vancouver, said by email. “CEOs have flagged this as an issue to me, citing several British Columbia projects heading toward construction that were recruiting and paying 50% more than they expected in some cases to attract talent.”  

Perks offered

This year’s survey found 43 mines using some form of incentive bonus plan while 30 had an employee retention plan. Companies cited safety, profit, production and cost savings as reasons for implementing them.  

“Many mines pay cash bonuses for good safety performance,” Costmine business manager and cost estimator Krista Noyes wrote in the report. “The most common type is a fixed bonus for achieving an accident-free record for a specified period of time.”

Some mines pay bonuses based on improvement over historical averages, or they may tie the bonus to production as a fixed award per tonne of ore produced if no lost-time accidents occur, Noyes said. Workers, their department or an entire mine can be penalized when lost-time accidents occur.  

Standard benefits are sometimes expanded, she said. Perks include transportation to the mine, paid or subsidized daycare facilities, travel expenses, supplemental retirement plans, accident and life insurance, stock purchase plans, safety equipment, tool allowances, scholarships for dependent children, education and training.  

Efficiency hit

“Among explorers, I expect we will see belt tightening on bonuses and salaries given the very difficult equity markets,” Gray said. “For overseas projects, I’ve heard experienced mining staff were being paid eye-popping figures to go and work in certain countries such as Pakistan.” 

This year’s survey showed some pay declined. The average salaries for mine engineer fell 3.1% to $105,800 from $109,200 and environmental coordinator stayed the same at $93,400. Also, at milling operations, the hourly wage fell for a mill equipment operator by 8.8% to $40.60 from $44.50. Costmine says it believes declines in pay for these positions are not indicative of the wider rising trend in pay, and wouldn’t show in a multi-year analysis. 

Last year, 73 mines responded; 55 were union and 18 were non-union. Of those 63 increased wages by an average of 4.3%, ranging from 1% to 15%, in the 12 months before the survey. Wages were unchanged at 10 mines then and none cut wages.  

“Energy costs are always a concern, too, of course,” fund manager Groh says. “But that volatility appears to be more manageable because it is anticipated whereas labour roster changes and skill set requirements can present managements with longer-term challenges with planning and execution.  

“Becoming more reliant on outside contractors tends to increase costs and goes against the efficiency and margin improvement opportunity owner-operators are trying to achieve.”