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BioWare contractors in Canada vote unanimously to form union

All 16 QA workers at Keywords Studios say ‘yes’

The key art for Mass Effect Legendary Edition Image: BioWare/Electronic Arts

Quality assurance (QA) workers at Keywords Studios’ Edmonton, Canada location, which supports BioWare projects like Mass Effect: Legendary Edition, have voted unanimously in favor of a union, they announced Monday.

The Alberta Labour Board counted the votes Monday and found all 16 eligible QA workers voted yes.

A representative for the new Keywords workers’ union said that bargaining will begin this week. A Keywords Studios representative pointed Polygon to a statement on its website:

Keywords Studios accept the vote of the 16 Edmonton staff who have chosen to unionize. We value our people and will continue to constantly strive to be a good employer. As an organization we want to ensure an engaging experience for all of our employees, and we take any concerns that our staff have seriously. We will continue to have an ongoing dialogue with all individuals in the Edmonton team, as we move forward together, always learning and improving.

“We’re ecstatic,” James, a Keywords Studios QA worker and organizing committee member, told Polygon on Monday. “We’re super happy. It will assist us going forward into bargaining that the whole team is completely united on this effort.”

Keywords Studio QA workers started talking about unionization in March after the studio implemented a return-to-office order that meant hundreds of dollars in extra expenses for commuting workers. Already frustrated by low pay, the workers found higher commuting costs harder to swallow, and also found the work-from-home flexibility a meaningful benefit. Keywords Studios QA workers said they don’t receive paid time off, which made going back to the office more challenging, too. Developing any COVID-19 symptoms would mean having to take a personal day off, rather than simply being able to work from home.

“We all got together and started talking about what it would look like in terms of costs for each of us individually,” James said. “We had a choice. We can either try to quit and go find another job, but we love what we do. We don’t want to leave. So we decided to try to form a union to see if we can drive some positive change in our workplace.”

Keywords Studios QA workers are organized under United Food and Commercial Workers Canada Union, Local No. 401. The group filed paperwork with the Alberta Labour Relations Board in April.

Keywords Studios was founded in 1998, with a headquarters in Ireland and more than 20 offices worldwide. Keywords itself does not publish or develop its own games, but instead provides art, audio, quality assurance, and development support for other studios.

Keywords Studios lists BioWare, owned by Electronic Arts since 2007, EA, Square Enix, and Blizzard Entertainment among several AAA studios and publishers that it supports. The Edmonton team, specifically, has worked on BioWare games like Mass Effect: Legendary Edition and a Star Wars: The Old Republic expansion. The team is currently working on the next Dragon Age.

The Keywords Studios union vote comes two weeks after Activision Blizzard QA workers at Raven Software formed a union with a 19-3 vote.

Labor organizing and unionization in the video game industry is more common outside of North America; the technology industry in North America historically been considered anti-union. Video game workers, in particular, have reported working long hours — sometimes up to 100 per week under crunch conditions — and low pay. QA workers, in particular, told Polygon in 2021 that they often feel disposable, with minimum-wage pay and contract work cycles.

Workers are pushing to change that environment, however, with QA workers leading the initiative for fairer working conditions.

James, the Keywords Studios QA worker, said the Keywords union has been in contact with their colleagues at Raven Software, who’ve supported their effort by sharing experiences and anti-union tactics to look out for. They’ve also received support from Game Workers Unite Montréal, an organization advocating for workers rights and unions in the video game industry.

“We’ve got a better chance of getting some better working conditions together,” James said.

Update: This story has been updated to include a statement from Keywords Studios.

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