Chinese workers took home just 12 per cent of wages; Can't stop contractor from pocketing lion's share, minister says

EDMONTON - Some abuse of foreigners working temporarily in Alberta is unavoidable because of conditions in their home countries, Alberta's minister of Employment and Immigration said Wednesday.

Hector Goudreau was reacting to news that up to 120 Chinese workers were paid a fraction of what they were owed for work building tanks at a northern Alberta oilsands site.

The concerns became public only after two of those workers were killed on the job. When their widows were contacted in China, the wages they said their husbands were taking home were less than 12 per cent of what they should have been paid.

Further research showed the correct amount was paid into each employee's bank account, but disappeared before it reached families in China.

"It appears that SSEC (the Canadian arm of the Chinese employer) at some point failed to live up to obligations to its workers," Goudreau said.

"We cannot enforce payments or deduction agreements that are outside our jurisdiction."

Officials with Alberta Employment and Immigration have been investigating the Chinese company since shortly after the fatal accident.

"There may be some recommendations that come out of that investigation," Goudreau said. "Hopefully we can move forward."

David Liu, commercial consul at the Chinese consulate in Calgary, said late Wednesday he just learned the Alberta government is investigating. He said he will look into the matter and make sure the Chinese company is following the law.

"We just found out from the (news)paper," Liu said. "We're going to find out what the real situation is.

"Our government also pays a lot of attention to this kind of issue," Liu said, noting that the Chinese government enacted new labour laws that took effect Jan. 1.

A Calgary-based SSEC spokeswoman was contacted but refused comment.

Labour advocate Gil McGowan said the situation was one he had been warning about for the last two years.

Officials from oilsands company Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. said in 2006 that they were looking at hiring a Chinese contractor, complete with Chinese workers, to build a series of multi-storey tanks at the $10.8-billion Horizon oilsands project.

Labour advocates warned the use of temporary foreign workers would drive down domestic wages. This case shows Canadian contractors are at risk, said McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

"How can a Canadian firm compete with a firm that is skimming wages off its own workers? The company was able to low-ball. I think they had every intention of clawing their wages back."

McGowan said he set up an advocacy centre for temporary foreign workers in May 2007 and has since opened 200 files for workers from Romania, the Philippines, Mexico and Pakistan.

He said that experience taught him how difficult it is for foreign workers to voice their concerns. No one should expect them to find and call the provincial government's 1-800 number, which is only answered in English, or speak to an investigator walking around on site.

All the workers who came for help worked in cities. They approached him with the help of churches or permanent Canadian residents with similar ethnic backgrounds.

"You can't underestimate how intimidated these workers feel," he said.

The Chinese workers on the Horizon oilsands site would have been in an even worse position because they were isolated physically in a work camp and socially because they were not integrated with the Canadian workforce.

"(Those Chinese workers) were still working in a one-party communist state. They're used to keeping their heads down and their mouths shut."

Rachel Notley, the NDP's employment critic, said government officials aren't doing enough to monitor the foreign-worker program.

"How could these people not getting their money have gone on this long without somebody noticing?" said Notley, a labour lawyer.

"Were (investigators) really doing the kind of oversight that they claim they were? I don't care if there's a third-party international company involved or not -- they work here, they should be paid here, and they should be getting all the rights that anybody working here gets, and it's the government's job to make sure that happens."

Edmonton Journal, Page A3, Thurs Jun 19 2008
Byline: Elise Stolte, with files from Jason Markusoff and Kelly Cryderman

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