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Unionizing Keywords contractors at BioWare Edmonton: "We need a living wage"

Keywords Studios B.C., employees contracting at BioWare Edmonton explain why they've taken the step of filing to unionize.

Like a bolt from the blue, news landed this week that British Columbia-based Keywords Studios contractors working at BioWare Edmonton had officially filed to unionize.

For those not close to the company, this news came as a surprise. Though there's been some reporting about workplace challenges on different BioWare projects, little had been written about the state of affairs for contractors working to support the studio. This came in sharp contrast to the Raven Software unionization efforts, which sparked in the wake of a confusing set of layoffs that preceded changes in how Activision Blizzard hires contractors.

So what's going on up in the cold north of Edmonton? The answer won't surprise any game industry veterans. In an e-mail interview with Game Developer, a spokesperson for the unionizing Keywords Studios contractors talked about being paid minimum wage in a city with expensive rent. 

That representative (who requested anonymity in order to speak freely about confidential topics), shared some more specific details on their experience as well. Though the group works at BioWare, their primary struggle is with the contracting company overseeing their labor.

Minimum wage, maximum rent

As mentioned up top, the unionizing Keywords Studios contractors are primarily focusing on securing a contract that guarantees a living wage. The group's representative stated that members of their bargaining unit are "struggling to make ends meet" working on BioWare Edmonton's games.

"[That] needs to change, or we cannot continue doing this work," they stated.

This group of development support contractors earns Canadian minimum wage, which is $15/hour (in Canadian dollars, that's about $11 USD). "That's the same wage as an entry-level fast food worker," the representative said. "I think the local Wendy's pays more than I currently make."

Rent in Edmonton is currently around $1,000 per month. After taxes, these workers are spending half their paychecks on rent, and rising inflation on food and other essentials has begun to hit their wallets. In-house testers at BioWare apparently make "double" their pay. 

We asked the group directly if workplace conditions at BioWare had contributed to the unionization push. "Our coworkers at BioWare have treated us really well, but we are obviously limited in our interactions by our contract," their representative said. "We typically aren't invited to social events within the project or given the same vacation or benefits."

They also said that on several occasions, BioWare Edmonton has closed its offices and its workers given the day off, while the contractors still plug away. "Our main grievances are with Keywords Studios," they reiterated. "We did feel this was our only recourse."

A breaking point for the organizing group was apparently a sudden plan dropped on their heads for returning to office in this stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, which would have sent the contractors into the building every day of the week. As they put it, this was a strange requirement not being made for all BioWare Edmonton workers. "Our team has been working remotely for years now but the same affordances to studio employees on work from home or hybrid options weren't given to us."

Thus, the group turned to Canada's United Food and Commercial Workers union, who have apparently helped tech workers unionize in the past. Their Local 401 has a "good reputation" in the labor community.

Exploited long enough

The group did credit the unionizing employees at Raven Software for inspiring their efforts, and expressed gratitude to them and other unionizing workers for taking up the cause.

When asked what they would say to other developers thinking about organizing, the group's representative had this to say: "If you've ever considered it, go for it. Life is too short to continue to get exploited."

They also pointed out that their employers (both EA and Keywords Studios) are raking in record profits (Keywords Studios specifically earned €48 million in profits, which is about $51 million USD) while they struggle to make rent. "You have the creative power and skills they need and you shouldn't be taken advantage of because you want to create passion-driven work."

The road ahead for this group of Keywords Studios contractors seems fairly steady. The group needed 40 percent of the team to sign unionization cards to submit their application with the Alberta Labour Relations Board. They need 51 percent on a "yes" vote to form their union. "We are very confident we will achieve that number."

We've reached out to BioWare parent company Electronic Arts and Keywords Studios for comment on this story, and will update it if they respond. 

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