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Why BioWare contractors in Canada are trying to unionize

QA workers hired during pandemic face daunting new expenses on a minimum-wage paycheck

Ashley Williams wearing pink and white marine armor in Mass Effect Legendary Edition
Keywords Studios QA workers in Edmonton helped test 2021’s Mass Effect: Legendary Edition.
Image: BioWare/Electronic Arts
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Quality assurance workers employed by contractor Keywords Studios, whose clients include BioWare, were motivated to organize a union because of a return-to-office order that would mean hundreds of dollars in commuting expenses for employees mostly making minimum wage, one of the organizers told Polygon.

Last week, the Alberta, Canada Labour Relations Board informed Keywords Studios that its Edmonton QA employees were organizing under the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada Union, Local No. 401, to be their collective bargaining agent. Tuesday, May 3 is the deadline for their employer to file any objections to the union’s formation. Assuming there are none, a vote should be scheduled within two weeks, and if 51% of the Keywords testers vote yes, they will begin bargaining a contract.

Keywords would be the second video games developer in North America to have workers organized into a collective bargaining unit. Twenty-one Raven Software QA workers, located in Wisconsin, began voting on Friday on whether to form a union called Game Workers Alliance. Those votes will be counted May. 23.

Keywords Studios, founded in 1998, is headquartered in Ireland and maintains more than 20 offices worldwide. Keywords Studios in Edmonton is managed by the company’s British Columbia office. Keywords provides technical services in art, audio, games development, localization, and quality assurance, but does not develop or publish games itself. BioWare, owned by Electronic Arts since 2007, is among several AAA studios and publishers in the company’s clientele.

One of Keywords’ organizers, who asked not to be identified as “our management doesn’t know who’s involved with the effort at this point,” said that their vote could involve between 15 and 20 employees, pending a Labour Board review of eligible positions. Regardless, this organizer is “heavily confident that we will achieve a union. We should be easily able to overcome this [vote threshold].”

The organizer said that the Raven workers’ actions, well publicized in the games press, were somewhat an inspiration, mainly in showing them that it was possible to take action. The actual reason for starting a union, they said, stemmed from unhappiness with low wages, and then a return-to-work policy that will add significant monthly parking fees and other commuting costs to a job still paying them the same wage that it was just a few weeks ago.

“Our entry level testers start at minimum wage,” which in Alberta is CA$15 an hour. “A one-bedroom apartment is about $1,000 here in Edmonton. Paid twice monthly, the organizer reckoned that many of their colleagues take home between $950 and $970 each paycheck.

Meanwhile, according to organizers, workers in other departments have been granted more flexibility.

“While our studio counterparts over at BioWare, they’re getting a little more of a hybrid model, flex hours, or permanent work-from-home options, it wasn’t really being afforded to us,” the organizer said. “So, some of our members felt that maybe we can have a little more of a conversation about this.”

Public parking, which workers are expected to cover themselves, runs between $250 and $350 a month, they said. “That’s before you’re buying yourself groceries and all the other expenses,” they said. Workers had avoided this and other commuting costs by working from home since the COVID-19 pandemic emptied out offices in the spring of 2020.

The organizer said they have worked for Keywords for two years and gotten a raise to $16.50 an hour, but they, like most of the workers who would vote on a union, started their testing job during the pandemic and have not gone into BioWare’s office to work alongside its developers. Over the past two years, Keywords QA in Edmonton assisted on Mass Effect: Legendary Edition, which launched last May, as well as the Legacy of the Sith expansion that launched for Star Wars: The Old Republic this February. Currently, Keywords QA workers are working on the next Dragon Age, the organizer said.

“Many of our individuals have things like student loans,” they said. “Just like down in the United States, post-secondary education is not free up here, either.” They said most of their colleagues had four-year university degrees, and those that didn’t likely had studied at a technical college. The University of Alberta, a well regarded public university there in Edmonton, is often a feeder to the local tech industry, games development included.

“It really resonated with a lot of our members that we are viewed as unskilled labor — minimum wage, you get to sit around and play video games all day, right?” the organizer said. “But I think the reality that most people don’t understand is how highly technical the QA industry is, and a lot of these individuals who are working on our team, these are people who are coming out of university with computer science degrees and just trying to get started in the industry.

“They’re highly talented individuals that are creating immense wealth for their employer, at the expense of themselves,” they added.