A prominent Canadian energy company's facility in Commerce City, Colorado, is facing allegations of labor violations amidst ongoing reports of pollutants from the site causing environmental damage to surrounding areas. The embattled company has also been making headlines after new CEO, Rich Kruger, announced the layoffs of 1500 employees to further cut spending and get the company out of the red. Additionally, Kruger was hired in the aftermath of a string of fatal incidents at another company operation in Alberta, Canada.
These points are alarming individually. Combined, they paint a picture of a company that is cutting corners to save money at all costs.
According to Carpenters Union Business agent J. Jones, Suncor Energy has been bussing construction workers to and from the Commerce City plant from a nearby parking lot, essentially, as he says, "trapping them," at the site. Workers reportedly endure grueling 12-hour shifts with only one 30-minute break a day at the offsite location with no second meal in the 10th hour. They also receive no overtime pay. These allegations have sparked an outcry among labor advocates like Jordan, who argue that such conditions are in clear violation of worker rights.
Jones has been monitoring the site and has witnessed the transportation of workers via buses to and from the facility, drawing attention to potential labor violations. "I see them go in at 6 am and come out at 6 pm. They make them leave their phones at the offsite lunch location so that the workers can't capture what goes on inside. But according to my source inside the plant, the workers who are not part of organized labor are treated horribly." he says.
Through Jones, BDN was able to speak with the worker, who wishes to remain anonymous, "there was a bunch of non union labor, I spoke to them about wages and working conditions on site. Some of them stated that they were only getting one half hour break during a 12 hour shift, and even though they were getting similar wages hourly, they had no insurance or benefits. I informed them of the area locals for their profession and state and they were making less than the area standard for their craft."
The allegations of labor violations only serve to intensify the scrutiny surrounding Suncor Energy. Labor rights organizations are calling for an investigation into the reported working conditions, stressing the importance of safeguarding worker welfare and ensuring compliance with labor laws.
To put these allegations into further context, Suncor is no stranger to being called out for disregarding the welfare of the workers. Suncor has an abysmal safety record with at least 12 deaths at Suncor jobsites since 2014.
Suncor Energy has been scrutinized for some time not just for unscrupulous labor practices. Environmentalists have long accused the company of contributing to pollution in the region and having a detrimental impact on the environment around the facility. It is also not lost on local activists that the demographics of the neighborhood surrounding the plant leans heavily towards poor and Latino.
According to an investigation by Colorado 9 News, over a four month period from Dec 15 of last year through March 15, 2023, Suncor disclosed 37 instances in which their refinery surpassed the permitted levels of chemicals such as dangerous hydrogen sulfide and carcinogenic benzene. These instances sometimes persisted for extended periods, ranging from hours to several days.
In another report released on March 16, Cultivando, a Latino led non-profit watchdog based in Commerce City, determined that residents of Commerce City and northern Denver are exposed to significantly higher levels of pollution compared to individuals residing in other communities along the Front Range. When taken into consideration that the area in question is predominantly Latino, an insidious methodology takes shape. “Why should our community be sacrificed for the sake of cheaper gasoline? Why do our children need to pay this price?” Cultivando Director Olga Gonzalez asks. “It’s not okay to tell us that this is just in our head.”
In 2020, Suncor was hit with a $9 million fine by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for emissions violations. The plant has been on activists' radars ever since. Ironically, Cultivando was formed and funded from a portion of the fine ordered set aside for community projects.
"This certainly tracks," adds Jordan, "the workers that are being exploited inside the plant are Latino. It's not surprising that outside the plant that same community is getting a raw deal as well."
What's Suncor's Next Move?
This month it was reported that Suncor is undergoing a major company-wide shake up that will leave 1500 employees without jobs. Shareholders have tasked CEO Kruger with lowering expenses and improving on the company’s less than stellar financial performance.
According to Jordan, the layoffs, the emissions issues, and the exploitation of workers inside the plant are all about Suncor achieving the bottom line, that of profit at any cost. He is certain that as the spotlight intensifies on the company's operations, residents of Commerce City will demand accountability over the reported labor violations and ongoing emissions issues.