When Alberta's oil sands started being commercially developed almost 50 years ago, the biggest challenge for companies was finding cost-effective production technologies. Producers such as Sun Oil Company (now Suncor Energy) and Syncrude focused on securing capital rather than launching public relations campaigns.
Industry and the Alberta government might have some regrets in that regard. As opposition to the carbon-intense development of the massive resource mounts, even seemingly benign pipelines have become vehicles in the battle over bitumen.
Energy corporations, as well as provincial and federal politicians argue the ability to move bitumen — either raw or upgraded — to markets is vital for Canada's economic prosperity. First Nations, environmental groups and landowners believe blocking pipelines will halt further development of oil sands and reduce the risk of oil leaks polluting land and water.
Lack of access to markets has Canadian crude trade at a massive discount to U.S. oil benchmark West Texas Intermediate, reaching a record $42.50 per barrel discount in December.
"If we do not go ahead with infrastructure, with pipelines to move our resources to tidewater and on to markets that want the resources, we will see them stranded and our legacy lost," federal Energy Minister Joe Oliver said in a recent interview. "The people who will be hurt by this will be Canadians and we don't want that to happen and we are determined it will not happen."
The gap between Canadian and U.S. crude prices is expected to narrow substantially by 2014 when pipeline expansions in Canada and the U.S. start flowing, increasing the value of exports by an estimated $8-billion per year. The discount currently hovers around $22 per barrel.
"The so-called 'bitumen bubble' is having serious consequences for government finances in Alberta and the rest of Canada and is costing the Canadian economy at least $20-billion per year," says Alex Pourbaix, TransCanada president of energy and oil pipelines. "Narrowing this price gap will ensure that Canadians and Americans realize the best possible value for their precious natural resources."
The so-called 'bitumen bubble' is having serious consequences for government finances in Alberta and the rest of Canada and is costing the Canadian economy at least $20-billion per year
Mr. Pourbaix says Keystone XL will also support job growth through increased corporate and tax revenues, adding there will be an estimated 2,200 jobs building the line through Alberta and Saskatchewan. The pipeline also is projected to add $3.5-million per year in Alberta property taxes and $1.3-million in Saskatchewan.
While TransCanada and the Alberta government are focused on trying to convince the U.S. public of Keystone's economic benefits, the pipeline is more important to Alberta and Canada, adds Frank Atkins. economics professor at the University of Calgary.
"If we don't get this, it's a big blow," he says. Keystone will help producers continue the expansion of the oil sands, while its delay — and uncertainty over accessing the U.S. — has some producers slowing or temporarily capping investments in the region.
The benefits of oil sands development extend far beyond Western Canadian borders, Mr. Atkins notes. Within the next 25 years, just under a million people will hold oil sands related jobs, up from 75,000 two years ago, and 126,000 of the total will be held by people outside of Alberta, according to a 2012 Conference Board of Canada report.
But for union leader Gil McGowen, Keystone XL would allow more than the movement of bitumen to market. The president of the Alberta Federation of Labour sees the pipeline drain jobs from Alberta and Canada, high-paying, long-term work associated with upgrading and refining bitumen in the province. "We think that pipelines like Keystone XL will simply act as conduits to take high-paying jobs in upgrading and refining out of the country, down the pipeline, to places like the American Gulf Coast and perhaps to China," he says.
Workers in upgraders and refineries earn about two-thirds more a week than the average worker in Canada, notes the association, which represents 145,000 unionized workers in Alberta.
The province of Alberta's own efforts to promote its bitumen royalty in-kind program in 2009 outlined the benefits of an upgrading, refining petrochemical hub as increasing provincial and municipal revenues by $748-million, adding almost 2 million jobs and increasing the GDP by more than $5-trillion over two decades.
Taking all into account, the loss of refinery jobs and spin-off jobs triple the loss for each dollar gained on exporting bitumen, Mr. McGowan argues.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers notes oil sands employ 112,000 people across Canada, from which goods, materials and services used to build oil sands operations are sourced. But with a tight labour market expected to become more acute as boomers retire, the issue of jobs flowing south is a non-issue, says spokesman Travis Davies.
"This isn't about jobs. The oil sands are going to be supplying more jobs that we can handle," he says. "The economic case for building brand new refineries is a tough one; we have existing product and existing customers that want our product on the Gulf Coast and to the degree that we should take advantage of that [Keystone] is clearly good for Alberta and good for Alberta workers."
Getting the stuff to the U.S. is important, but we would still be a seller with one customer, which is not good for any business
Why go south? The region between Texas and Louisiana has the most oil refining capacity in North America at 8.5 million barrels a day, including about three million barrels of daily capacity for heavy crude. Producers such as Suncor, a major backer of Keystone, much prefer to flow bitumen to existing facilities rather than invest billions of dollars in developing their own. The veteran oil sands producer is expected to red light its $11.6-billion Voyageur upgrader project any day now after warning the economically challenged project was not a "strategic investment."
Mr. Atkins points out Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway pipeline project, from Alberta to Kitimat, B.C., is also an important option for producers and Canada.
"If you can get to the west coast, you can get it to Asia and Asia has huge demand we've got to capitalize on it because if we don't we miss out on a big market," he says. "Getting the stuff to the U.S. is important, but we would still be a seller with one customer, which is not good for any business."
Production of non-upgraded bitumen is expected to increase by 17% to 1.04 million barrels per day. Bitumen upgraded to refinery-ready feedstock is slated to rise to 1.03 million barrels per day.
And come what may, the product will ship to markets, either by pipeline, railcar, truck or barge — all alternatives being used and expanded on by Canadian producers.
The debate on bitumen pipelines out of Alberta could cool down once Keystone XL's future is determined, but don't expect the issues around transportation to go away, says analyst Phil Skolnick, managing director with Canaccord Genuity.
"Keystone is a big fix but it's not a permanent one," Mr. Skolnick says. "We'll run into that situation again when other oil sands projects come online in 2020-2021."
Edmonton Journal, Friday Apr 12 2013
Byline: Dina O'Meara, National Post
Canada's temporary foreign workers vulnerable to exploitation
OTTAWA—José Sicajau, a Guatemalan man of Indigenous descent, had grown accustomed to exploitative conditions after several years as a Temporary Foreign Worker growing vegetables on a farm in Saint-Michel, Quebec, less than an hour south of Montreal.
But when his boss allegedly attacked a Mexican co-worker in 2006, striking him with an aluminum pole because the assembly of an irrigation system was not going as planned, Sicajau ran out of patience.
"That was the end for me," said Sicajau, 45, speaking through a translator in November. He was in Ottawa with a delegation of human rights activists, touring the region to denounce the program that first brought him to Canada nearly a decade ago.
Some advocates for migrants want the Temporary Foreign Worker Program abolished, calling it racist and exploitative. Unions say the program is designed to weaken labour power in Canada. The NDP calls it a flawed system that takes jobs from Canadians. But business leaders say it is key to economic growth.
Canada is receiving more Temporary Foreign Workers (TFWs) than ever. The Low-Skill Pilot Project—a TFW stream that bars workers from applying for permanent residency—grew by over 2,000 per cent between 2002 and 2010.
TFWs now work in nearly every sector of the Canadian economy: in kitchens and hotels, in the tar sands and on construction sites.
Nearly 30,000 "low-skilled" TFWs were in Canada in 2010, according to an October report published by Maytree, a left-leaning think tank.
And changes made in 2011 to the Low-Skill Pilot Project prevent workers from remaining in Canada for more than four years. Once their time has run out, these changes to the law prohibit them from working in Canada again until six years have passed, according to Joey Caluguay, a community organizer with the Immigrant Workers Centre, a non-profit group in Montreal.
Caluguay says the TFW program should be abolished and the economy transformed so that workers are free from the vagaries of the marketplace.
"You don't create an economy where disposable workers are necessary, or where exploiting workers makes the economy run," says Caluguay, who provides support to TFWs in the Montreal area, including Filipino machinists and Jamaican landscapers.
Experts predict that in 2015, when visas expire under the new law, a huge number of migrants may remain in Canada as undocumented workers, making them vulnerable to unrestrained abuse at the hands of employers and unable to access social services, says Naomi Alboim, Professor of policy studies at Queen's University and co-author of the Maytree report.
"They're already in a very precarious position," says Alboim. "Once they become undocumented, that will increase very significantly."
In Guatemala City, Sicajau co-founded an association committed to defending the rights of migrants after his experience in Canada's Low-Skill Pilot Project. He says the number of Guatemalans in this "low-skill" stream reached 6,000 last year.
Ten years ago, he was among the first.
A farmer by trade, he worked a plot of land with his family in rural Guatemala, raising corn and vegetables before learning about the TFW program from a food-export co-operative.
He would leave his wife, children and grandchildren for months at a time to work in Canada. Then the alleged attack by his employer prompted him and his co-workers to file a complaint with Quebec's labour standards board. The complaint was rejected for lack of evidence, despite the testimony of three migrant workers, a decision Sicajau attributes to racism.
When he returned to Guatemala, the head of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) demanded that he retract the complaint, according to Sicajau.
When he refused, he says, the agency blacklisted him. Since then, the IOM has been replaced by the Foundation for Entrepreneurs Recruiting Foreign Agricultural Workers (FERME), an association of Quebec farmers with an agency operating in Guatemala.
"We gave our everything to work here and to help support the Canadians," Sicajau says. "And as a consequence of denouncing this, we're kicked out of the program."
He added that the head of the IOM who allegedly threatened him now works for FERME.
To Sicajau, the importance of the work performed by so-called "low skilled" workers in Canada—such as farm labour—is underrated.
"Farming is very difficult because you have to work the land, you have to remove the rocks and stones, you have to plant your seeds and tend to the earth," Sicajau says. "It's sacred work that they do to put food on the table."
Adrian Smith, a Professor of law and legal studies at Carleton University and a member of the non-profit group Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW), says TFWs are vulnerable to exploitation because their visa is linked to a single employer. Rocking the boat can lead to deportation.
"You have to put up with the nonsense that the employer imposes on you," Smith says.
Some TFWs have been killed in Canada, like 39-year-old Jamaican farm labourer Ned Livingston Peart, who was crushed by an iron bin while trying to load a tobacco kiln. Others have been injured while performing dangerous work, or have grown ill from exposure to pesticides.
Indigenous people like Sicajau often find themselves pushed into migrant labour by grinding poverty, ecological destruction and political violence, Smith adds. These conditions make people willing to tolerate abusive employers overseas.
Smith argues that wealthy countries contribute to these conditions through policies like free trade agreements that allow corporations to run rampant. Canada, he says, should allow migrants to stay.
But Conservative MP Rick Dykstra defended the restrictions imposed on migrant workers when questioned by The Dominion as he paused in the lobby outside the House of Commons before a vote.
"Temporary foreign worker program," said Dykstra, a member of the House of Commons immigration committee. "It's not a path to permanent residency."
When asked to justify this policy, Dykstra said: "We need folks to do the work, and there's an opportunity for [TFWs] to fulfil that obligation."
Dykstra said he was unaware of any TFWs being abused. He also said any employer that abused a worker would be blacklisted. The "ineligible employers" list has been blank since it appeared on the Immigration Canada website in 2011.
Top industry associations have praised the TFW program for addressing what they call an acute labour shortage in Canada.
The Canadian Council of Chief Executives, in a July 2012 report, called labour shortages "one of the greatest threats" to potential development of energy resources, including the burgeoning oil and gas sector—although unemployment rates have remained stubbornly high, especially among youth.
The report also hailed "the proposed expansion of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program."
Rapid tar sands development has meant the job market has been in recruitment mode in Alberta, but labour shortages have developed across the country, according to Corinne Pohlmann, Vice-President of National Affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
"The Temporary Foreign Worker Program became a very important tool for employers to fill those gaps," Pohlmann says, adding that many businesses want the process sped up.
Before issuing a temporary visa to a migrant worker, Service Canada is supposed to check whether the employer has attempted to train or hire Canadians.
The bureaucratic process made headlines in October with reports that a Vancouver-based mining corporation had recruited 200 low-paid Chinese workers after posting ads seeking Mandarin-speaking workers. Critics called this a clear signal that the company never intended to hire Canadian workers.
The story of the mine workers became a political football in the House of Commons, with NDP Immigration Critic Jinny Sims saying those jobs should belong to Canadians.
Sims did not reply to an interview request, but stated during Question Period in December that "Canadian jobs are still being given away" under the TFW program.
Nearly 30 per cent of all new jobs created between 2007 and 2011 were for TFWs, according to Canadian Auto Workers Economist Jim Stanford.
Stanford argues that the program puts downward pressure on wages because employers are allowed to pay TFWs up to 15 per cent less than the average local wage earned by Canadians.
Groups including the Alberta Federation of Labour have called the TFW program an effort to drive down wages and working conditions while bypassing unions.
According to Alboim, many of those jobs could employ people who tend to struggle with unemployment, including refugees and new immigrants. "There are people in this country for whom these jobs would be important entries to the labour market," Alboim says. She argues that the Low-Skilled Pilot Project should be abolished.
To Smith, Canada's temporary worker schemes summon memories of the 19th century, when Chinese labourers were recruited to perform the most dangerous and low-paying work on the construction of the railway.
"Over time, we have used so-called foreign labour to do the heavy lifting of this country, to develop much of the infrastructure," says Smith. "It's incumbent on us to open up our conception of who belongs, [of] who's a citizen."
The Dominion, a media cooperative, Apr. 12, 2013
Byline: David Koch, freelance writer
After news of RBC's outsourcing of jobs caused a nationwide outcry, one small Alberta town said it depends on foreign workers to fill jobs that Canadians refuse.
In Rocky Mountain House, a town in central Alberta, business owner Nikki Searth said she relies on the program because she has trouble finding a student who will accept an $11-an-hour cashier job.
According to Searth, it wasn't always so."Our ethics have changed with work. I know when I was younger everybody had a job," she told CTV News. "I find today it's not the case."
The turning point for town was the oil boom of 2007, after which it became hard to compete with the lure of a six-figure salary.
"A lot of businesses scaled back the hours, a lot of them were shutting days they weren't before. And owners were back in the kitchens," Donald Verhesen, a town councilmember, said.
Today there are "quite a few foreign workers in Rocky," one resident told CTV News.
"I know the Burger Baron in the town close to here is getting foreign workers, because you just can't get anyone to work," she said.
In fact, out of the 340,000 temporary foreign workers currently in the country, 85,000 are in Alberta, more than any other province.
To labour unions, that is far too many.
"This is not the way you build a country, but it is the way you break a labour market and drive down wages and conditions," Gill McGowan of the Alberta Federation of Labour said.
However, there are fears from the industry about changes to the foreign worker program.
The tourism association in particular relies heavily on foreign workers.
In a letter to several ministers Friday, the association warned that changes to the program could hurt the $84.8 billion industry.
Rocky Mountain House residents also fear what would happen to the town if there were no temporary foreign workers available to fill jobs.
"It would be shut down because there are not enough young people to work in these places," one resident said.
CTV News, Friday Apr 12 2013
With a report by CTV Daniele Hamamdjian
The controversy over the outsourcing of dozens of Canadian jobs by the Royal Bank of Canada has put the spotlight on the much bigger issue of how Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker Program is being utilized.
The Alberta Federation of Labour added its voice to the debate Tuesday by calling for a review of the federal program because of concerns the program is being used to replace Canadians workers and drive down wages.
There appears to be legitimate cause for concern. The program was originally intended to assist employers in hiring temporary foreign workers to fill high-skill jobs because of the shortage of skilled workers already in Canada. Instead, the AFL points out that since the program was announced a year ago, more than 2,400 permits have been approved to hire foreign workers for low-skill service industry jobs.
The federal Accelerated-Labour Market Opinion (ALMO) program allows employers to pay foreign workers up to 15 per cent less than Canadian workers are paid. It also speeds up the process of hiring foreign workers so it can be done within 10 days.
It doesn't require a degree in rocket science to figure out that being able to pay workers 15 per cent less is going to be an attractive lure for business operators. And it appears businesses are taking full advantage of the opportunity.
"The percentage of ALMO approvals for businesses that largely employ low-skilled workers appears to be in direct contradiction to the stated parameters of the program," AFL president Gil McGowan wrote in a letter to federal auditor general Michael Ferguson.
In a Canadian Press story in Wednesday's Herald, McGowan noted that documents obtained through the Access to Information Act show that employers using the ALMO program include fast-food restaurants, convenience stores and gas stations.
"Are we supposed to believe that these are 'high-skill' employment opportunities?" McGowan asked.
Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, defended the federal program, saying many small- and medium-size employers need temporary foreign workers to fill jobs, and the need is most pressing in Western Canada and in rural communities across Canada.
"I take it as a positive that businesses of all skill levels are able to access this expedited process," said Kelly. "Our members really need those expedited processes."
The issue, however, is are those workers preventing Canadians from landing those jobs?
McGowan suggested a couple of ways employers could deal with the difficulty in finding workers - they can either offer higher wages or the federal government can increase immigration. Of course, offering higher wages isn't an attractive option for businesses, and for those just squeaking by, it might not be an option at all.
But the bottom line is it appears the federal temporary foreign worker program is not being used the way it was intended, and that warrants an investigation.
Lethbridge Herald Opinion, Thursday, Apr 11 2013
Todd Bender doesn't seem like he'd be in the market for temporary foreign workers: He's executive director of CityKidz, a faith-driven group working with young people in inner-city Hamilton. His focus is local.
But three years ago, while hiring a youth coordinator, the hiring team realized their preferred candidate – a young woman from the Bahamas who had been studying in Canada – didn't have the right visa to work in the country.
"It wasn't until near the end of the interview process the question came up, and by then we were committed," Bender said. So they started filling out paperwork.
"It was quite a learning curve. ... I remember feeling there were just a lot of hoops to jump through," he said. Every year they wanted to keep the woman on, they had to re-post the position and go through an interview process again.
"She was here for three years. Did a phenomenal job. It worked out great," he said. By the time she left, she was awaiting her Canadian citizenship.
Who's hiring temporary foreign workers?
Lots of people: A range of companies and government agencies, according to a document posted online by the Alberta Federation of Labour, obtained through a freedom-of-information request. It lists 90 pages of employers, including the company name and province of each, but not whom they hired, when or for what work.
Human Resources and Skills Development Canada told Global News it couldn't give out those details because "the information requested is not public."
The Bank of Canada, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, Tim Hortons, McDonald's, Maple Leaf Foods, the City of Vancouver, the Edmonton Police Service and eateries of various vintages are among the thousands of employers who've been approved for accelerated labour market opinions: Their need for foreign workers, they said (and the federal government agreed), was so urgent they required an expedited approval process.
Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker program came under scrutiny this week over claims Royal Bank of Canada was replacing Canadian employees with workers contracted from overseas. The ensuing furor was enough to prompt a public apology from RBC Thursday.
stensibly designed for urgently needed skilled labour, statistics from Human Resources and Skills Development indicate the largest group is comprised of "intermediate and clerical" workers. The program "is intended as a last-resort, short-term solution so businesses can continue to grow," HRSDC said in an e-mail. Its swift growth has prompted concerns not just for Canadian workers, but for the rights of often vulnerable temporary ones.
While the spectre of outsiders stealing Canadian jobs looms large, the reality isn't quite so clear cut.
Global News contacted more than a dozen employers approved for accelerated labour market opinions to ask about their exceptional need for temporary foreign labour.
Many – including the Bank of Canada, the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board, Maple Leaf Foods and Caterpillar Canada, whose closure of its Electro-Motive plant in London walloped the southwestern Ontario community – did not respond or refused to comment.
The Edmonton Police Service applied for expedited permission to hire temporary foreign workers when the people they wanted to hire – both already working in Canada – needed new visas.
"They were the most qualified," said spokesman David Schneider.
One was in charge of identifying and analyzing risks in the police service's environment; he moved on when his job was complete. The second is leading a review of the police service's policy and procedures.
Schneider noted candidates for these positions are "not easy to find: We look for backgrounds in policing plus skills in that particular area."
The city of Vancouver has hired three workers under the accelerated labour market opinion process, says spokeswoman Wendy Stewart. One is in planning and development, another was hired last year to provide specialized fire engineering services to the fire department, but has since returned to his home country; and one is joining the equipment services department.
"All of these individuals were hired following extensive recruitment processes which failed to identify interest on the part of equivalently qualified Canadian applicants," Stewart said in an email.
McDonald's Canada employs more than 2,000 "international recruits," a spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail.
Tim Hortons has been hiring temporary foreign workers since 2005, spokeswoman Alexandra Cygal wrote in an e-mail.
"Without this employment program," she added, "many Tim Hortons restaurants would not be able to operate full time or, in many cases, remain open at all."
The Conservative government has said it plans to tighten the rules and ensure employers have no Canadian option before recruiting workers from abroad.
"We have to do our due diligence, and we recognize that," MP Kellie Leitch said in an interview with Global News. "We have committed to reviewing this and fixing this program, because we realize there have been some discrepancies. ... We need to pick up our socks."
Global News, Thursday Apr 11 2013
Program intended to address shortages in high-skill jobs
A federal program intended to fast-track skilled workers into Canada is instead being used by a "who's who" of fast-food chains and service industry companies to import low-wage employees, says the Alberta Federation of Labour.
The AFL said Tuesday its research found half the successful applications for temporary foreign workers under the "accelerated labour market opinion" (ALMO) program last year were from employers who typically employ low-skilled workers, such as fast-food chains, gas stations and convenience stores.
"What's disturbing to us about the list is the majority of applications were for employers that were not normally employing highly-skilled workers," AFL president Gil McGowan said.
"It's a who's who of the Canadian service industry sector."
By the numbers: How the program is used in Alberta
The initiative, started by the government last April, gives employers with an established track record in the temporary foreign workers program the necessary go-ahead within 10 business days.
Employers who want to hire a temporary foreign worker must first get a labour market opinion from the federal government agreeing there is no Canadian capable of filling the position.
When it launched the program last April, the government said the initiative was intended to address labour shortages in "high-skill occupations," including skilled trades.
But McGowan said documents obtained by the AFL under access-to-information legislation demonstrate otherwise.
Temporary Foreign Worker Approvals
According to the AFL, half of 4,839 ALMO approvals nationwide between April and December 2012 were "questionable" because they were granted to companies that employ mainly unskilled workers.
Alberta had the highest number of ALMO applications of any province or territory: 2,640.
The AFL considered 58 per cent of Alberta applications — 1,542 — as questionable.
"It stretches the bounds of credulity that all these employers have been using the program to hire highly-skilled workers or managers," McGowan said.
However, one well-known Canadian company included on the list of ALMO applicants — Tim Hortons — said it has a legitimate need for a high number of skilled workers.
"These individuals often have many years of industry experience and education within the restaurant and hospitality industries and are crucial to our business," spokeswoman Alexandra Cygal said via email.
"Every Tim Hortons restaurant requires about four supervisors and at least one manager to handle our 24/7 business."
Tim Hortons franchisees have been hiring temporary foreign workers since 2005, but Cygal stressed they do so only after exhausting their options locally.
"Without this employment program, many Tim Hortons restaurants would not be able to operate full time or, in many cases, remain open at all," she said.
The AFL has asked federal auditor general Michael Ferguson to investigate the ALMO initiative.
The AFL's concerns come just days after reports the Royal Bank of Canada is laying off 45 employees in Toronto and replacing a portion of them with foreign workers and outsourcing the remainder of positions abroad.
RBC has denied the report, saying it is not using foreign workers to replace employees in Canada.
A spokeswoman for Human Resources and Skills Development Minister Diane Finley said Tuesday the government is "very concerned" about the recent controversies involving the temporary foreign worker program.
"The program exists to address real and acute labour shortages in certain sectors and regions across the country on a temporary basis. It was never meant to replace Canadians with foreign workers," Alyson Queen said in an emailed statement.
"Officials are investigating and will look into any evidence that the program is being misused."
Although McGowan has specific criticisms of the ALMO process, the AFL wants the temporary foreign worker program abolished.
The program allows employers to pay temporary workers up to 15 per cent less for high-skill positions and up to five per cent below average wages for low-skill jobs — but not lower than the local minimum wage.
"The real problem is not rogue employers, but the temporary foreign worker program itself," McGowan said.
Calgary Herald, Thursday, Apr 11 2013
Byline: Jason Van Rassel
The RBC scandal is the “tip of the iceberg,” a unionist says; taxpayers have a right to know who’s benefiting and where the real labour shortages are.
The RBC scandal is the "tip of the iceberg," a unionist says; taxpayers have a right to know who's benefiting and where the real labour shortages are.
Ottawa must make Canada's temporary foreign workers program more transparent and accountable by publicizing the names of employers who bring in migrant workers and the jobs they fill, critics say.
Canadian taxpayers have a right to know which employers are benefiting from the $35.5 million a year taxpayers pay to process their applications for a "labour market opinion," say major labour groups. Potential employers aren't charged a fee for this service, which is required to justify their claim that they need to bring in foreign workers to fill a need.
"Transparency is incredibly desirable for Canadians. This can act as a check against disingenuous Canadian employers," said Karl Flecker of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC).
"If the labour shortage is genuine, why would employers not want the data made public, so the government can take on job training strategies? By keeping it quiet, they are not helping our work force development."
The call came amid an ongoing investigation by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) into the use of foreign workers by oursourcing company iGate to replace 45 Canadian employees in information technology at the Royal Bank of Canada.
Flecker said the CLC has been trying in vain to obtain information from the government about participating employers since 2006. That was the year the temporary foreign worker program began to explode as it was opened up to "every legally recognized occupation" by the Conservative government.
"It's important that we know who is applying so we can identify if there is a genunine shortage," Flecker explained. "Both the federal government and the provinces are understaffed with their labour inspectors. (The unions) have the ability to assist them to meet with migrant workers about their health and safety and community integration."
Employers may argue their hiring practices are private commercial information. But University of Toronto law professor Audrey Macklin points out that government is accountable to the taxpayers who fund the program.
"All Canadians have an interest in this," Macklin said. "The real story here is not whether employers are behaving badly. They are basically responding, in a predictable way, to the incentive deliberately created by a government policy.
"When you make it easier and faster to bring in migrant workers and allow employers to pay them 5 to 15 per cent less, that's a predictable outcome."
Naveen Mehta, general counsel for United Food and Commercial Workers Canada, said his union has also been denied access to the employer information.
"We've been frustrated along the way (trying) to access the information. This will absolutely be a beneficial piece of a larger, transparent regime," said Mehta, whose group has been lobbying to get a migrant worker commission established to adjudicate on the employment of foreign temp workers.
Mehta said some Canadian employers set unattainable qualification requirements in their recruitment to justify turning to migrant workers. He gave as an example Vancouver-based HC Mining, which demanded Mandarin-speaking miners and got approval to bring in 201 workers from China.
Through an access to information request, the Alberta Federation of Labour recently obtained a long list of employers whose application for temporary foreign workers was fast-tracked and approved by the federal government under the Accelerated Labour Market Opinion process.
The list, which does not include regular LMOs, includes 900 Ontario-based employers ranging from restaurants to retailers, universities, charitable groups, IT companies such as CGI Information Systems & Management Consultants, accounting firms such as Pricewaterhouse Coopers, financial institutions like the Bank of Canada and even tae kwan do academies.
AFL president Gil McGowan said many of these LMO applications have been "rubber-stamped."
He believes the scandals at RBC and HC Mining are just the tip of the iceberg.
"This isn't being used as a stop-gap, and it isn't a last resort for remployers," said McGowan, who is calling for an inquiry into the migrant worker program.
Both HRSDC and Citizenship and Immigration Canada did not respond to the Star's inquiry about employers who received favourable LMOs.
Related: The $1-billion-a-year company at the heart of the RBC temporary foreign worker controversyThe $1-billion-a-year company at the heart of the RBC temporary foreign worker controversy.
TheStar, Wednesday, Apr 10 2013
Byline: Nicholas Keung, Immigration reporter
Labour economist says program allows firms to keep wages low
The Alberta Federation of Labour called for an inquiry Tuesday after it obtained a government list of more than 4,000 companies given approval to hire temporary foreign workers last year, many in the service industry.
"You look down this list and what you see is McDonald's, Tim Hortons, and Subway. This list goes on. It stretches the bounds of credibility that all of these employers have been using temporary foreign workers to hire skilled workers," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, on CBC News Network's Power & Politics.
McGowan's comments come after a CBC story this week of one man's experience training foreign workers to take his job drew a fire storm of controversy and a hard look at Canada's temporary foreign workers program.
David Moreau told the CBC he and 42 other IT workers at RBC are being replaced by a foreign workforce.
"The new people are in our offices and we are training them to do our jobs," he said. "That adds insult to injury."
The head of RBC denied the bank is replacing Canadian workers with temporary foreign workers. Foreign workers were hired by iGate, an outsourcing firm, which has a contract with the bank to provide IT services.
Kelly Leitch, parliamentary secretary for the minister of human resources and skills development, said the government is looking into it.
"We have some significant concerns about what's going on in the temporary foreign workers program and that's why in (the budget) we've committed to fix the challenges that exist so Canadians can be better connected to jobs."
Labour economist Erin Weir says that kind of review is essential: "This should lead to a broader debate about the temporary foreign worker program. Is it really addressing labour shortages? Or is it undermining job opportunities and wages in Canada?"
Program has ballooned
The program began in 1973 to fill a gap in the labour market for jobs Canadians could not or would not fill — domestic workers and agricultural workers as well as highly skilled jobs, such as specialist physicians and professors.
"The idea of having a temporary foreign worker program is legitimate," according to Prof. Ian Lee at Carleton University's Sport School of Business. "The Germans, other European countries and the U.S. all have this kind of program. The issue is to have the right checks and balances to ensure it isn't abused."
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, says a government list showing thousands of jobs going to Temporary Foreign Workers stretches the credibility of the program.Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, says a government list showing thousands of jobs going to Temporary Foreign Workers stretches the credibility of the program. (CBC)
But critics suggest those checks and balances have been undermined by recent changes to the program. The high-skill segment made up more than 50 per cent of temporary foreign workers, but all that changed in 2002. That's when the federal government under the Liberals began a pilot project adding a new category of "low skilled workers."
According to a recent report by the faculty of business at Athabasca University in Edmonton, the "low skilled category now dominates the temporary foreign workforce, with the top categories now including food counter attendants, kitchen helpers, cooks; construction trades, helpers and labourers, light-duty cleaners and administration workers including information technology."
In 2006, the new Conservative government expanded the pilot project, and added "fast-tracking" for some jobs in Alberta and British Columbia. The new list of jobs called "regional occupations under pressure," reduced the obligation by employers to seek out Canadian workers first.
The government document obtained by the Alberta Federation of Labour suggests employers such as fast food operators like McDonald's and Tim Hortons are using this accelerated program to bring in cheap labour.
The program is aimed at higher-skilled workers, but they don't have to prove they've advertised for Canadians to fill the jobs first, said Gil McGowan.
"They don't have to run over the same checks and balances and that's why we're concerned, because clearly this process is being abused by service sector employers. And it's important to note that the government wants to expand the accelerated program, which we think would be a disaster."
Cities taking more temporary foreign workers
While most think the program is meant to fill jobs in remote parts of resource-rich Western Canada, some of the largest increase in temporary foreign workers have been in cities.
Since 2008, permits for temporary foreign workers in Toronto increased by 60 per cent, in Montreal by 87 per cent and the Atlantic Provinces saw an 80 per cent increase, according to data from Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
The total number of temporary foreign workers has doubled in the last decade, to 338,189 workers.
"We now have about as many temporary workers in Canada as the entire workforce of New Brunswick," said Weir, an economist with the United Steel Workers Union.
"I think part of the problem is that a lot of companies are going through the motions of pretending to hire Canadians, in order to gain those Labour Market Opinions that they need to get temporary foreign workers."
Weir suggests the foreign worker program often allows employers to fill vacancies without providing training opportunities or raising wages to attract workers.
He points to recent studies showing Canadian companies underperform compared to businesses in other OECD countries, including the U.S., when it comes to training and development of its own workforce.
All Canadians could pay for the expansion of this category of worker, according to Weir: "Expanding labour supply, without an offsetting expansion of demand, increases unemployment and decreases wages."
Allowing cheaper wages
Another change to the program last year allows employers to pay workers 15 per cent less than Canadian workers. Carleton's Ian Lee says allowing lower wages could undermine Canadians' support for the program.
"The problem is it creates the perception that it's being used to undermine organized labour or undermine the market wage rate in that job classification. It's going to discourage public support when Canadians realize an employer can do that."
"Canadian workers are being displaced, training is being ignored and the TFW program is becoming the first choice rather than a tool of last resort," said the Alberta Federation of Labour's McGowan.
Kelly Leitch defends the program.
"When we don't have a Canadian available because there actually isn't anyone available, it's important that we have access to a good program, a sound temporary foreign worker program; that skilled labour can be brought into the country to make sure that firms can thrive."
She said the government is committed to reviewing the program, but had no details on when that review would be complete.
Perhaps the courts will get there first.
On Tuesday, HD Mining International was in a Vancouver courtroom, defending its decision to hire 201 workers from China for its coal mine in Tumbler Ridge, B.C.
Two B.C. unions launched the case against the company.
Brian Cochrane, of the International Union of Operating Engineers, hopes the case will result in changes.
"I think that this case is going to give us a chance to look under the hood of the whole temporary foreign worker program."
CBC News, Wednesday, Apr. 10, 2013
Byline: Cindy Pfeffer
OTTAWA—The federal government is investigating the possible abuse of the temporary foreign workers hiring program by Canadian companies and is expected to overhaul it to put greater onus on businesses to seek out local employees before bringing in foreign workers.
Businesses that are turning to foreign workers to fill employee shortages are also expected to be required in future to do more to train Canadians for the skilled job vacancies now going to people from overseas, a senior government official said.
The review of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program has taken on new urgency as Prime Minister Stephen Harpers' government faces a firestorm of complaints that its policies are encouraging firms in Canada to replace Canadians with foreign workers and drive down wages.
"The Conservatives are enabling companies to exploit the program and avoid hiring Canadian workers," NDP deputy immigration critic Sadia Groguhé said Wednesday. "The point of the program is to complement Canadian workers, not substitute them."
Outrage over the government's foreign hiring plan blew up after it emerged that the Royal Bank of Canada was planning to shift the information technology work done by 45 Canadian employees to foreigners contracted by iGate, a U.S.-based outsourcing firm.
But the issue has been gathering steam since last year, when HD Mining International Ltd., a Chinese-backed coal mining operation in British Columbia, brought in 201 miners from China under the temporary workers program.
The federal government is investigating the applications leading up to the staffing changes at RBC and is also conducting a wider look at the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which has doubled in the last decade to 338,000 workers.
In the March 21 federal budget, the government said it planned to reform the program to ensure foreign workers are brought in only when Canadians are "genuinely" not available. The new rules will require employers to make more extensive efforts — including more advertising — to hire Canadians before becoming eligible to bring in foreign workers.
The government also wants to work with employers who "legitimately" rely on foreign workers to ensure the companies have a plan to move to a Canadian workforce, the budget said.
As well, the reforms would require companies to pay user fees to apply for permission to bring in foreign workers. But officials haven't said when the new rules will be put in place.
The government is also concerned about another recent measure for bringing in foreign workers quickly. The Accelerated Labour Market Opinion (ALMO) is a way to fast-track applications for skilled workers needed on a temporary basis by Canadian companies.
The Alberta Federation of Labour focused attention on this aspect of Canada's temporary worker arrangements after it obtained a list of 4,800 companies — many in the services industry — that were approved to bring in temporary help under ALMO last year.
"You look down this list and it's McDonalds, Tim Hortons, A&W, Subway Sandwiches," said Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan. "Are we supposed to believe that these are 'high-skill' employment opportunities?"
The government is looking at how "skilled workers" are defined under this program, a senior official said. Currently, a manager or supervisor in a service business can qualify as a skilled worker under the program, the official noted.
The government is "committed to fixing the (temporary worker) program to ensure that Canadians have first crack at jobs in Canada," a spokesperson for Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said. "The program exists to address real and acute labour shortages in certain sectors and regions across the country on a temporary basis. It was never meant to replace Canadians with foreign workers."
The Harper government is also concerned about another federal program called an intra-company transfer, which allows multinational companies to temporarily shift employees to Canada without the need to convince Ottawa that no Canadian can do the job. This measure is also being examined to see if it is being abused by companies wanting to avoid the usual procedures for bringing in foreign employees, the official said.
Ottawa Star, Wednesday Apr 10 2013
Byline: Les Whittington
The budget cuts to post-secondary education will not only trickle down and affect the entire Lethbridge economy, they will also have a negative impact on the quality of education and threaten the autonomy and free speech that universities are founded on.
Those were some of the thoughts of several speakers scheduled to talk at a special session of the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs Tuesday evening.
The session addressed the question of whether the cuts to post-secondary education are justifiable. The University of Lethbridge's operating budget will be cut by about $12 million and Lethbridge College's operating budget by nearly $3.5 million.
Chris Nicol, economics professor and dean of Arts and Sciences, said the provincial budget and the letters of expectation that flowed to institutions in the aftermath have created both financial and philosophical challenges. He said he'd like to see the major universities collaborate more closely to craft a response to government.
"It's clearly bad news. From the financial side of things we had a written commitment from this government that certain things would happen this year and they've completely abrogated that agreement," Nicol said. "From a philosophical perspective, the Minister (Thomas Lucaszuk) almost seems to want to use the system for political purposes, tied with their own philosophy within the governing party and that's never what universities have been about."
In her role as the director of policy analysis for the Alberta Federation of Labour, Shannon Phillips sees how the cuts will trickle down.
"It's not just the support staff, the academic staff and the students and their families that this will have an effect on, but in an economy the size of Lethbridge's where post-secondary institutions are such a large employer and a large source of demand for goods and services, there are going to be spin-off effects through our city that have a great impact on the private sector, on small business, on new home starts, on home sales," she said.
Julia Adolf, vice-president academic with the U of L Students' Union, said the province's budget is not student-friendly, despite the government's assertion to the contrary. While tuition fees won't increase this year that could easily change next year.
"We could see the cap removed. We're very worried about that," she said, adding students are also worried that mandatory non-instructional fees will be hiked to compensate for the cuts.
The cuts will lead to larger class sizes, fewer course offerings and negatively affect student services, such as library hours or registrar services, Adolf said.
"They're very much talking about the homogenization of our university system and we're very scared that's going to lead to devaluing of our degrees," she said.
Bill Ramp, a sociology professor, said he has grave concerns about the cuts as they threaten the role post-secondary institutions play in a democracy. The seeming irrationality of the move may lead to an overall weakening of the system before their autonomy is eventually threatened.
"When you undermine the autonomy of universities in such a way that they threaten to become little more than a voice for the policy of the governing party of the day what you're doing is destroying another part of public space," he said. "If we're not prepared to defend free speech and autonomous research then where are we?"
Lethbridge Herald, Wednesday, Apr 10 2013
Byline: Caroline Zentner