Alberta unions call for public enquiry into treatment of Chinese workers

Representatives from some of Alberta's construction unions say the case of Chinese temporary foreign workers having their paycheques siphoned by their employer reveals huge flaws with the federal government program that need to be addressed by a public enquiry.

Two temporary foreign workers were killed and four others injured in April 2007, when the roof of the massive storage tank they were building collapsed at the Horizon oilsands project north of Fort McMurray.

After talking to the dead men's widows, the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) uncovered serious issues relating to the payments received by the temporary foreign workers on the project.

"We went to great lengths to make sure there was a Canadian bank account for all of these workers," said Wayne Prins, CLAC representative.

"We did continual checks that the payroll was processed and the correct amount of money was deposited in the accounts. We monitored the situation closely and spoke to people to confirm this was happening. We had every indication it was happening."

The CLAC found out after the deaths that the Chinese workers on the project were not receiving their full salary.

"We had concerns that they did not have access to their full accounts," said Prins.

"The employer had access to their accounts and what was being collected was less than what was being paid."

A story in the Edmonton Journal last week reported that the widows of the dead men said the wages their husbands were making were about 12 per cent of what they should have been paid.

One welder's widow said he made about $600 per month.

"We have not been able to confirm what was actually being collected by the craft workers on this project," said Prins. "The CLAC is continuing its efforts to see what has happened to these personal accounts."

Canadian Natural Resources Ltd (CNRL) runs the construction site at the Horizon oilsands project.

According to Prins, CNRL hired Sinopec Shanghai Engineering Company (SSEC) to build the storage tanks. SSEC is the Canadian arm of Sinopec, which is a Chinese state-owned enterprise.

SSEC had signing authority on all of the workers' bank accounts.

The correct amount was paid into each employee's Bank of Montreal account, but disappeared before it reached families in China.

In the case of a welder, the regular pay should have been about $8,000 to $10,000 a month.

The Alberta Federation of Labour said that CNRL and the CLAC made huge mistakes in their rush to bring the Chinese TFWs into Alberta.

"The first mistake was allowing the Chinese government to have direct access to these workers. CNRL had a responsibility to make sure they weren't exploited," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

"And, CLAC failed in its responsibility to these workers. No mainstream union would have permitted an arrangement like allowing an employer to have signing authority on worker bank accounts," he said.

The CLAC argues the AFL comments are not surprising given the fact that the two unions are competing for members.

"It is not surprising that Gil McGowan and other unions respond in this way, because they are in competition with us and we have a different approach to labour relations," said Prins.

"The reality is that in Alberta we are growing rapidly and their market share is decreasing."

Alberta Workplace Health and Safety investigators finished their report on the Chinese workers' deaths last October.

"As a result of the revelations about the payments of Chinese workers at the Horizon Oil Sands project, the government has announced that they have completed the investigation into the deaths of the Chinese workers," McGowan said.

"We don't know the results of the investigation into health and safety issues and company practices, but the report has been forwarded to the justice department and they are looking to see if charges will be laid by the solicitor general."

The Alberta Building Trades Council said in a press release last week that the errors surrounding the compensation of the widow of Ge Genbao, one of the workers killed at the Horizon project, highlights the need for a federal government enquiry.

"A public enquiry will allow us to sort through the myriad of issues, so that we can have a proper level of qualification, standards and enforcement," said Ron Harry, executive director of the building council.

"A public enquiry will expose the flaws in the program and make recommendations that will rectify the conditions that workers face coming into Alberta."

Journal of Commerce, Mon June 30 2008
Byline: Richard Gilbert

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