Local electricians fear for jobsite safety

When it comes to how electricians trade certificates are actually being earned, the practice is for some Chinese immigrants to write the exams in Ontario then return to Alberta, pay a registration fee to obtain the equivalency trade ticket then travel to the oilsands for work.

The electrician who called Phd Training, along with two colleagues, recently met with Today to discuss their concerns about what they've been witnessing on site.

Norm Chan said because it's legitimately qualified Chinese electricians raising the alarm that validates the complaint, removing any prejudice. Chan was one of the colleagues who accompanied the caller.

"We're here as concerned citizens," said Chan. Of Chinese descent, the first-generation Canadian holds a legitimate trade ticket after four years on the job following successful completion of Alberta's four-year apprenticeship program. He added that eight years ago, it used to be one in 1,000 electricians were Chinese. Now, there's 20 or 30 on a job. "We're not trying to be discriminatory. They have to go through the (same training) we all did, doing the apprenticeship and being properly taught." After talking to some colleagues of the Ontario tested electricians, he maintained "They shortcutted to get paid the top wages ... which is not right."

More important, they're afraid someone will be hurt, or worse -- killed on the job -- because unqualified people are working as electricians.

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, agreed, saying operations that generate unqualified workers make a mockery of the rules and standards for training and certification.

"They're an insult to all those tradespeople who play by the rules and have spent years developing their skills," he said. McGowan added this practice also raises concerns about construction quality and workplace safety.

In recalling reasons for their concerns, a second worker referred to simply as Wong, remembered watching two Chinese men trained Ontario working from a blueprint to connect a series of wires in the junction box.

"They pick up the phone, they're asking their friend outside," said Wong. "They ask their buddy ... how to do this and this ...

"It make me very mad because I'm Chinese. The next job I go, I'm embarrassed. There are some good Chinese."

He also recalled these workers will also ask where they can buy tickets if they see fellow Chinese workers doing something they don't realize is part of an electrician's job.

Chan and his colleagues noted these workers are not restricted to one oilsands construction site.

"I've had my own experience where I was ... put on a crew with a bunch of these other Chinese people, and then we had to go tie-wrap. I asked them to go to their tool boxes ... to get their pair of klines and pair of sidecutters."

As they would pull different tools out, they would gesture with their head, and Chan found himself shaking his head no until the right tool appeared.

What compounds the issue of improperly earned tickets is "nobody's policing it, and more and more are coming along," said Chan.

When the confidential source contacted Phd Training's Edmonton office for information, his call was routed to the Toronto branch. Phd training is based in Toronto, according to its website, though it claims to have schools in major centres across Canada.

In the recent conversation, which lasted about 20 minutes with a man who identified himself as Yuan, he was told people outside Toronto take classes on the Internet. They can reach the teacher through mail or on the telephone. Students could be ready to write an exam for the industrial or electricians trade certificates in as a little as a few months. The cost is $1,100 for the industrial election course, and $1,200 for the construction electrician course. Tax receipts are issued. A workshop is also made available for students to acquaint themselves with the tools of the trade: $450 for construction electrician and $550 for industrial electricians courses.

The workshops, said Yuan, take about one and a half months with two classes a week.

In Ontario, it takes five years to become a properly qualified electrician through the apprenticeship program. In Alberta, it's four years with 5,850 hours of hands-on work.

Yuan explained that the test can be taken in Alberta but it takes longer, about four months, from the time of evaluation to the exam, whereas it only takes about a week in Ontario. Also, he said the school encourages students to write the exams in Ontario rather than Alberta because its easier. Yuan added the school can even help with accommodation at $20 a night for those in Toronto to write the exams.

Yuan said the school encourages people, even if they prepped in Alberta, to write the exam in Ontario because it's less trouble.

And English? No worries. According to Yuan, it's easy for Chinese people to get into this industry where "you don't need a lot of specific technical skills, like a language ... I think the language problems aren't an issue." He added students can bring a translator who can even be their child.

"I think the English requirement isn't high as long as you have the technical terms down," Yuan added later.

Anyone writing an exam is allowed to supply their own translator.

Dove noted that in Ontario, a client writing the trade certification examination arranges for their own translator who can be a family member or person the client feels most comfortable with. However, guidelines and procedures are in place to ensure that a translator is not associated with the trade or a related trade.

As for the reference letter supposed to be written by a former employer in China confirming the required five years experience, Yuan said "if you write it well, it's OK."

"So I can write it myself?" asked the source

"Yes," replied Yuan.

If the letter verifying the experience is accepted, the applicant is not subject to an evaluation to put their skills to the test. However, Yuan cautions that "if you have bad luck," the evaluation will still be conducted and the student can be found out.

"In Canada, they're very trusting of the official certificate," said Yuan.

If students fail, the school will help students write the tests as many times as needed before they pass even though the government states the test can only be written three times in one year. Yuan said if students get a letter from where they're training, they can test again.

McGowan, who had been hearing rumours of this practice for months, said "If decisive action isn't taken ... it will weaken the very foundation of our system for trades training.

"If governments don't act quickly shutting these operations down, "they'll be putting lives at risk. They'll also be jeopardizing the Canadian construction industry's ... well deserved reputation for quality workmanship."

Fort McMurray Today, Page A8, Fri Jun 6 2008
Byline: Carol Christian

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.