Video game quality assurance workers in Edmonton could soon be part of Canada’s first unionized workplace for an industry with a sordid history of worker exploitation.
Last month, Local 401 of the United Food and Commercial Workers applied to the Alberta Labor Relations Board to become the certified bargaining agent for Keywords Studio staff under contract with BioWare. The process is still ongoing but the union expects a formal staff vote in the coming weeks.
BioWare, owned by publishing giant Electronic Arts, is a major games studio responsible for the success of the Mass Effect and dragon age series. Keywords Studios contracts support the work of many major developers around the world.
CBC News spoke to three employees, whose identities are being protected for fear of reprisal. They said one of the catalysts for the organizing drive was a mandatory back-to-work order that has been overturned since the union demand began.
Keywords Studios employees were asked to return to the office while BioWare employees were given more options.
A major issue is compensation. Employees said there are pay gaps between testers, but pay generally hovers around Alberta’s minimum wage of $15 an hour. They said it was not a living wage and was low for the skills required for the job, especially compared to BioWare employees doing similar work.
“We hope the union gives us some level of assurance, honestly,” said one worker.
“An assurance that we can continue to do our job as we do and that hopefully we will have some bargaining power in terms of salary increases.”
CBC News did not receive responses to requests for comment from Electronic Arts or Keywords Studios.
Labor issues in industry
Low pay and forced overtime known as “crunch” are long-standing issues in the industry, although the latter are less likely to apply to roles such as paid quality assurance testers on time. Social issues have also been brought to the fore with a recent lawsuit filed by the State of California against Activision Blizzard over allegations of discrimination and sexual harassment.
“What used to be seen as some sort of isolated case or unfortunate aspect of the industry is now seen as a systemic workforce issue,” said Sean Gouglas, professor of gaming studies at the University. from Alberta.
QA officers test game bugs before shipping, usually at the end of the development cycle, but sometimes integrated throughout the process.
Gouglas said some people start in quality assurance as a way to break into the highly competitive industry. They face many of the same labor issues that have plagued the business for years.
“While all of this is true for the industry in general – again not all companies, but many companies – it’s absolutely true for QA testers,” he said.
“They’re usually the lowest rung on the ladder in the game development process.”
Unionization is rare in the North American video game development industry.
The first union on the continent was formed last year at Vodeo Games, a small independent studio whose employees work remotely in Canada and the United States.
A second union was formed this year for the Wisconsin-based Raven Software QA department, which worked on the Call of Duty franchise.
Johanna Weststar, professor of labor relations at Western University, said the emergence of local organizing group Game Workers Unite has put unionization on the table.
Weststar said the organization – which is not a union per se but has chapters around the world – has worked to facilitate organizing and build partnerships with various union bodies.
“There is a lot of what I would call experimentation in organizing workers in this industry right now.”
Weststar predicts further attempts will be made to unionize within the industry, but warned there is no litmus test case yet.
“These are still unionizing at the margins with the more precarious workers, which is fair, there’s some sense in that,” she said.
“But it will be very interesting to see when some core game developers – so not QA – at a major studio, if an attempt to unionize happens there, then we really see a precedent.”