Agreement hopes to clarify foreign worker program

The temporary foreign worker program is perhaps the most contentious labour issue in the oilsands but a new provincial and federal government agreement is expected to clarify its parameters.

"We'll be able to share information and that'll hopefully help us be alerted to any abuses that could come forward," said Alberta Minister of Employment, Immigration and Industry Iris Evans. "I think you'll see a lot of the concerns that have been emerging addressed," she added, when the agreement is finished in November.

Monte Solberg, federal minister of human resources and social development Canada, said in an announcement the new agreement will include penalties for program abuse, such as refusing future requests for foreign workers. While there must be a "zero tolerance" for abuse and mistreatment, Solberg said "we need to recognize that temporary foreign workers must supplement Canadian labour, not displace it."

With the use of Chinese temporary workers predominant on the oilsands, training and qualifications remain top concerns, said Gil McGowan, Alberta Federation of Labour president.

Training is, he said, "One of the big questions we were asking after the deaths on the tank farm and it's a question we continue to ask: 'Are the workers being brought over from other countries trained up to standards that would be acceptable in Canada?' So far, we haven't been convinced." McGowan is referring to a tank collapse at the Canadian National Resources Ltd. site in April that killed two Chinese temporary workers.

McGowan said neither level of government has adequate screening mechanisms to properly evaluate qualifications.

He said federal bureaucrats have "essentially admitted to me that they only do paper audits on workers coming into the country under the temporary foreign worker program."

That may be acceptable with workers coming from countries with comparable standards to Canada's, but for workers coming from countries like China with lower standards, "Paper audits clearly won't be enough."

He's also concerned about a "loophole" in the practical testing of compulsory certified trades. Workers have up to six months to take the test but can work during that time.

"The paper audits and the loopholes that are being exploited by employment brokers make a mockery of our standards when it comes to training and health and safety," stated McGowan. "We're creating this underclass of workers who are much more vulnerable and much more open to exploitation."

It also discourages employers from investing in domestic training. McGowan asked why companies would invest in a domestic apprentice for four or five years, when they can get, for example, a journeyman right away through the temporary foreign worker program.

"The temporary worker program has been identified as one of the components to get through the human resources challenge," said Brian Maynard, human resources specialist and a vice-president for the Canadian Asociation of Petroleum Producers.

He noted a lot of people accuse the industry of trying to circumvent Alberta's labour movement by using temporary foreign workers.

While that could sometimes be the case, he acknowledged, it's "the most expensive solution we can find."

Costs for this "short-term solution" include such integration issues as moving, transportation, training and regulatory approvals. "It's a real challenge to integrate a temporary foreign worker," he said. Those costly challenges act as an "incentive for companies to hire locally," added Maynard.

MLA Hugh MacDonald, Liberal energy critic, wonders why, with nine other provinces and three territories, employers look overseas.

"Every rock and stone should be overturned looking for people here," he told Today. "I'm not convinced we're making enough of an effort." He added the unemployment rate among First Nations youth aged 15 to 24 is high.

"The last place we should be looking is the temporary foreign worker for exploitation," said MacDonald, adding the program is "designed to drive down Canadian wages and work conditions."

Last year, according to Evan's office, the top three countries suppying temporary foreign workers were the United States with 2,772, Philippines at 2,211 then the United Kingdom at 1,438. China ranks ninth out of the top 12 with 293. The U.S. is generally always the leading country. The year before it was the U.S., U.K. then Australia. The top three positions are babysitters/nannies, parents' helper at nine per cent; general farm workers at six per cent and processional occupations/business management at five per cent. Oilsands workers are not in the top 10. However, a group of "other occupations," which covers the remaining jobs not mentioned could include these workers. But because of the way the federal government collects the data, there's no way to break down this 68.6 per cent. There's also no way of knowing the top three countries supplying foreign workers to oilsands projects.

Fort McMurray Today, Page A1, Fri July 20 2007
Byline: Carol Christian

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