ST. ALBERT - A Canadian subsidiary of Chinese state-owned oil giant Sinopec has been ordered to pay $1.5 million in penalties for failing to ensure the safety of two Chinese workers killed in a 2007 tank collapse at a work site in northern Alberta.
Sinopec Shanghai Engineering Company Canada Ltd. pleaded guilty to three charges under the Occupational Health and Safety Act in September. It was given the maximum $500,000 fine for each charge in a St. Albert courtroom Thursday.
The total penalty is the biggest workplace safety fine in Alberta's history and one of the biggest in Canada.
Two charges were related to the deaths of the two temporary foreign workers and the third was connected to two workers who were seriously injured.
As part of a creative sentencing agreement between Crown prosecutors and SSEC lawyers, $1.3 million of the fine will be used to educate temporary foreign workers on their legal rights.
Workers Ge Genbao, 28, and Lui Hongliang, 33, were killed on April 24, 2007 when the roof structure of a multi-storey metal holding tank collapsed at a work site 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. The site was part of the Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. $10.8-billion Horizon project.
Court has heard that SSEC Canada did not get the tank construction plan certified by an engineer. The wires securing the tank were not strong enough to hold up in even moderate winds, according to an agreed statement of facts.
"The accident almost had a sense of inevitability to it," said provincial court Judge John Maher. The judge said he was struck by the extent of the failure to comply by safety standards.
"This is a particularly egregious case," Maher said. "The size of the penalty is directionally proportional to the consequences of the act. It's hard to imagine in this case why it would not be a maximum penalty."
Crown prosecutor Marshall Hopkins said he was confident such a massive penalty would be an effective deterrent for other companies.
Kevin Flaherty, executive director of the Alberta Workers' Health Centre, said the money enables his group to "do some good work with a bad situation."
The $1.3 million will be used in a three-year program to train 45 people to educate temporary foreign workers about their rights and Alberta's workplace health laws. Flaherty said such workers are particularly vulnerable because they fear loss of their work visas if they speak up.
"They can't just walk across the street and get another job," Flaherty said. "We need to be a much better job of treating these workers as people when they arrive."
Flaherty expects the education program will reach 5,500 workers and spread further by word of mouth.
The Alberta Federation of Labour was not impressed by the court decision and called the fine "a slap on the wrist" that will not be a deterrent.
"One-and-a half-million dollars doesn't even amount to a rounding error in the annual budget of a monstrous global corporation like Sinopec," AFL president Gil McGowan said in a prepared statement. "This fine does nothing to dissuade them from playing fast and loose with the safety of their workforce."
SSEC was the direct employer of the workers and contracted by CNRL. SSEC recruited 132 Mandarin-speaking Chinese workers for the tank project.
The original plan was to build the tank walls first, then use them to support the roof while it was under construction. That plan changed when the project fell behind schedule.
CNRL approved the construction change, but SSEC did not prepare any formal written procedures that should have been certified by a professional engineer.
The construction of 13 tanks began on April 2, 2007. The collapse occurred three weeks later.
Hongliang, an electrician, was struck by a steel girder while standing on the partially completed wall. He died at the scene. His son, in China, was only a year old at the time. Genbao, a scaffolder, was on the floor of the tank and was crushed by falling steel. He died on the way to hospital. He is survived by four older sisters in China.
On Thursday afternoon, SSEC Canada issued a statement that expressed regret for the deaths and said it accepted Maher's ruling.
Sinopec had tried to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada on the grounds that it had no official presence in Canada and was not under the jurisdiction of a provincial justice system. The nation's top court refused to hear that appeal.
The Edmonton Journal, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013
Byline: Ryan Cormier
It has been, for Alberta, a dismal new year. With pipelines out of the province effectively full, Canadian crude has become a discount brand, and once-expected money is evaporating. The future looks little better. Alberta's Finance Minister has taken to dramatic language to describe the financial duress striking his province.
"This is not an ordinary storm," Doug Horner said this week. The dipping price of Canadian oil will strip some $27-billion from the Canadian economy this year, he said in a speech to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce that was designed to soften the ground for what is certain to be a grim provincial budget on March 7.
Mr. Horner's argument hinges largely on "differentials." It's an industry term that describes, in the current context, price discounts. So for example, Canadian heavy oil – which is often traded as a blend called Western Canadian Select – has seen a differential of as much as $42 (U.S.) a barrel below the headline oil price numbers. In North America, the headline number is typically the "benchmark" West Texas intermediate (WTI) blend. A big dip away from West Texas intermediate means that Canadian oil is selling on the cheap – and cheap oil for buyers mean low prices for sellers, the reason Alberta is facing such dire straits.
Not everyone is buying it, though. Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, for example, says "the differential has been around for years, it's just now being used as a scapegoat to draw attention away from the government's failed revenue policies."
And it's true that differentials are nothing new. Canadian heavy oil takes more energy – and therefore more cost – to process into fuels like gasoline or diesel, so it's always sold for cheaper. According to Patricia Mohr, the Bank of Nova Scotia economist, that discount averaged $18.19 between 2005 and 2009. (Alberta budgets on a $15.97 differential.)
So a $40 discount for Canadian heavy oil is big – but nearly half that discount is perfectly normal. And over the past 12 months, the differential has averaged just over $25, which means it hasn't been much bigger than average.
Still, the current differential is obviously much bigger – and there are ways to sort out what it could be if there was plenty of space on pipelines. Take, for example, the differential between Louisiana light sweet oil (LLS) and Maya oil. Those two blends of crude traded on the U.S. Gulf Coast are roughly comparable to Canadian light oil and Western Canadian Select, respectively. In recent trading, the gap between LLS and Maya has been roughly $13. Some argue that in a logical world, the Canadian heavy oil discount would look more like that – a possibility that emphasizes how much is being lost today.
But the many different ways of calculating things have led to widely varying estimates of the missed revenues for energy companies today. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers did a back-of-the-envelope sketch and came to roughly $15-billion, based on current pricing. Martin King, a commodities analyst with FirstEnergy Capital Corp., pegs it at $18-billion.
The numbers are necessarily guesses, since they are based on estimates of what oil prices could be if pipelines weren't effectively full and product went to market unobstructed.
That said, the numbers can also be crunched to show much larger losses. If Canadian crude could make it to tidewater, it would access the kind of international prices that drive LLS and Maya. Compared to that, far more revenue is being forfeited – Mr. King puts it at nearly $30-billion, in the vicinity of the Alberta estimates. Still, that's far more hypothetical, since it's less certain that Canadian oil will achieve international prices, given the troubles industry has encountered building pipelines to the West Coast.
And at least part of the story is that the Alberta government didn't just underestimate differentials. It also overestimated the headline oil prices, expecting a WTI price of $99.25 when it's actually been about $93 over the past 12 months.
Either way, Mr. King said, current differentials are adding up to missed government tax and royalty revenues of about $4-billion to $6-billion. Most of that pain accrues to Alberta.
"You take the mid range of that; $5-billion that's wiped out just because we're taking a hit on spreads," he said.
The Globe and Mail, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013
Byline: Nathan Vanderklippe
VANCOUVER - The nationwide Idle No More movement merged with ongoing protests against oil pipeline projects proposed for British Columbia, to bring more than a thousand protesters out to greet the federal review panel conducting hearings in Vancouver.
The community hearings by the federal panel on the Northern Gateway project are scheduled to resume this morning, after a noisy start on Monday night.
First Nations from as far as the Haisla Nation on the North Coast, near the would-be tanker port of Kitimat, B.C., and from the Interior took part in a march to the downtown hotel where the hearings are being held.
"The Harper government has one of the most aggressive, high-carbon strategies in the world," Eddie Gardner, of the Sto:lo Nation, told the crowd as they mobilized ahead of the march.
He blasted the federal Conservatives for changes they've made to environmental laws that will affect oversight of the Northern Gateway proposed by Enbridge (TSX:ENB) and other projects.
"He implemented that legislation, it has become law, and he did it with crass and ruthless disregard for the environment," Gardner told the protesters.
"Stephen Harper is hell bent to expand the tar sands.
"Canada is coming alive to Harper's real agenda ... he is one of the biggest enemies of the environment."
Protesters were met by Vancouver police, who kept them from entering the building. They remained outside the Sheraton Wall Centre for a short time, drumming and chanting "No Pipelines" before moving on.
Kiera Corrigan, 25, said she is originally from Bella Coola, a small community on the central coast.
"I think it's really important that we don't put in this pipeline. My home town is right south of Kitimat, so it hits really close to home if we ever have an oil spill, which there will be," she said.
Protesters also took aim at a proposed expansion of the existing TransMountain pipeline operated by Kinder Morgan.
The pipeline moves oil from the oil sands to port in Vancouver, and a proposed $4.3-billion expansion would more than double the capacity of the 1,100-kilometre line.
The joint review panel, which is weighing the Northern Gateway, has scheduled eight days of hearings in Vancouver.
They're hearing public comment on the controversial plan to deliver oil from the Alberta oil sands to a tanker port on the North Coast of B.C.
Community hearings were held previously in Victoria, and a one-day hearing is scheduled in Kelowna later this month.
The panel limited access to the hearings room to participants.
"Given the large urban nature of Victoria and Vancouver and previous protests held in both locations regarding the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway project (the project), the panel has decided that it will limit access to the hearing room," stated the directive.
Members of the public are able to listen to submissions in another location. The hearings are also being streamed live on the panel website.
Access to the hearings remained closed off after the protesters dispersed.
Inside, the three-person panel heard from a range of interested members of the public, from First Nations and environmentalists, to a scientist who lamented telling her children and grandchildren about what she did about climate change.
"What will you tell your grandchildren?" the woman asked the panel.
Eric Doherty, a former Canadian Coast Guard marine engineer turned environmental planner, chided the panel for failing to consider emissions from the Alberta oil sands in its assessment.
"It's no longer controversial that global warming is killing people," he said. "It's no longer controversial that global warming is THE threat to our society."
The pipeline project has been incredibly divisive in British Columbia and as the end of the long regulatory process nears, both sides are trying their utmost to rally support.
The United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters decided to weigh in Monday, with a statement from Canadian director John Telford stating that the project "will provide jobs to members in Eastern Canada as well as the West."
"The regulation of the oil and gas industry as a whole ensures that the impact to the environment and native peoples will be minimal and the benefits should far exceed any possible drawbacks," the union said in the statement.
And Enbridge has been on a charm offensive in the province for months, with full-page newspaper ads and radio ads extolling the benefits of the project and assuring B.C. residents they will employ world-leading safety measures.
The panel held final hearings earlier in Edmonton, Prince George and Prince Rupert, where company experts and interveners answered questions under oath.
Those hearings will resume in Prince Rupert next month, and the panel must submit its recommendations to the Environment Minister by the end of this year.
Huffpost BC, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013
Byline: Dene Moore, The Canadian Press
During the last month of 2012, Christian Paradis, Canada's minister of industry, announced on behalf of the Canadian government the approval of the $15.1 billion acquisition of Nexen Inc. by China state-owned enterprise (SOE) China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC).
The CNOOC deal was heralded as the largest acquisition by a Chinese SOE, and the media suggested that with this transaction the Chinese communist regime indicates its intention to reduce its investment in U.S. bonds.
CNOOC pledged to abide by free market standards, including "transparency and disclosure; commercial orientation, including an adherence to Canadian laws and practices ... and employment and capital investments, which demonstrate a long-term commitment to the development of the Canadian economy," as stated in a Dec. 7, 2012, Government of Canada announcement.
It is not known if a national security review, often required under the Investment Canada Act, has been completed in the CNOOC-Nexen purchase, especially as Canadian secrecy rules prohibit anyone from discovering that such a review took place.
The CNOOC deal is not cast in stone yet, as Nexen has assets in the United States, the United Kingdom (U.K.), and the European Union (EU), and thus still needs approval from the U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), Canadian regulatory agencies, and respective U.K. and EU government agencies.
"The U.S. approach is more specific, transparent, and integrated than the Investment Canada scheme. The U.S. CFIUS model also requires nine agencies to work together to carry out reviews," said Debra Steger, law professor at the University of Ottawa, in a Dec. 7, 2012, interview published by Maclean's.
Secrecy and Lack of Transparency
According to media reports, the Canadian government has not prevented the acquisition of a Canadian oil and gas company by any foreign SOE, because it could always find a net benefit for Canada. However, as of date, the government has not been transparent as to what it considers a net benefit and how it tests for the net benefit.
"There is no formal, transparent, judicial or quasi-judicial process. Rather, the process is an internal investigation conducted by Industry Canada officials in the case of a 'net benefit' review," Steger said in the interview.
There are actually two types of reviews: One is the net benefit review, and the other is the national security review. The latter could be ordered when the foreign buyer is an SOE. However, this type of review is shrouded in greater secrecy, and it is impossible to determine if such a review has taken place.
"In the case of a 'national security' review, the process is even less transparent ... and no written reasons are published. ... The national security process is shrouded in secrecy, there is no appeal, and ... no one knows what happened in a particular case or even if a national security review was conducted," Steger said.
Acquisition of Canadian Assets
The Nexen purchase isn't CNOOC's or other Chinese SOEs' first purchase of Canadian assets.
"In 2011, CNOOC made a major move into the oil sands by purchasing 100 per cent of OPTI Canada for $2.1 billion. Sinopec acquired Daylight Energy in 2011, and made a $4.65 billion investment in Syncrude in April 2010.
"China Investment Corporation (CIC), a sovereign wealth fund with an office in Toronto, made an investment of $817 million in a new oil sands joint venture with Penn West Energy Trust in May 2010; it also made a $1.5 billion investment in Canadian mining company, Teck Resources, in 2009. Petro China invested $1.9 billion in Athabasca Oil Sands Corp. in late 2009," according to Steger.
Concerning some of the above investments, Steger suggests that some of them were minority investments, and thus didn't fall under the Investment Canada Act requirement, even though some of the investments were for a large amount of money.
Chinese SOEs and the Trust Issue
The question remains, can the agreement between CNOOC and the Canadian Ministry of Industry be taken seriously?
"About two-thirds of the public (68%) say the U.S. cannot trust China too much or at all," according to a Pew Research Center Sept. 18, 2012, report.
"Unfortunately, as long as China is ruled by the communists, ... [their] words cannot be trusted," according to a commentary on the Eye Dr. DeLengocky website, a website by a Vietnamese doctor who immigrated to the United States in 1990
Quoting former president of South Vietnam Nguyen Van Thieu, Dr. Tayson DeLengocky said, "Do not listen to what the communists say, just look at their actions."
Public Relations Ploy
Concerning the takeover of Canadian assets by foreign SOEs, Stephen Harper, Canada's prime minister, announced that going forward, Canada would put in force tougher conditions, which would nix acquisitions like the CNOOC-Nexen deal.
"Prime Minister Harper's supposedly 'tough new conditions' for foreign takeovers are nothing more than a public relations ploy aimed at masking the fact that he has just allowed a foreign government to seize unprecedented control over Canada's energy resources," a Dec. 7, 2012, article on the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) website suggests.
The AFL doubts any sweeping overhaul is in the making, especially since the process will be outside the public eye, and the industry minister will still be in charge of the proceedings.
"CNOOC is not your typical oil company. It doesn't operate on market principles, and it isn't beholden to investors. If they [Canadian officials] had been serious about defending the interest of Canadians, they would have nixed the deal outright," according to AFL President Gil McGowan in the Dec. 7, 2012, article.
Trying to Nix the CNOOC-Nexen Deal
"The Harper Government approved the sale of Nexen to a Chinese government-owned oil company Friday in part because critics of the deal couldn't make a good case against it," a Dec. 9, 2012, article on the Calgary Beacon website suggests.
Arguments that China is a communist country are a political weapon, but not a sound argument to scuttle the CNOOC-Nexen acquisition.
The communist allegation cannot be seen as a valid reason for nixing the CNOOC-Nexen deal, as proponents will ask, "Then why does Canada do business with China?" For example, why does Canada continue to do business with the Chinese state? In 2011, Canada's trade deficit with the Chinese state was CA$32 billion and CA$24 billion from January 2012 to September 2012, according to the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.
Concerning the argument that Canada is handing over its natural resources to China, the Calgary Beacon article disagrees.
"Under Section 92A of the Canadian constitution, the provinces own the country's natural resources and are given the responsibility for managing them," according to the article.
Many of the opponents to the CNOOC-Nexen deal point to the flagrant industrial espionage the Chinese state has been committing for years. No one doubts that the Chinese state has been known for years as a violator of intellectual property rights and has been linked to online spying.
"The counter argument is that CNOCC is state-invested, not state-managed, ... [and] has plenty of Canadian shareholders. ... CNOOC has also pledged to keep on the existing Nexen management team, which suggests that using the Canadian entity to commit espionage may be tougher than it looks," according to the Calgary Beacon article.
Epoch Times, Friday, Jan. 11, 2013
Byline: Heide B. Malhotra
Social justice lawyer Fay Faraday says it's time for Canadians to insist on sweeping reforms of the federal Foreign Temporary Workers Program to protect workers from the kinds of abuses reported on in the three previous articles in this series. "It's a systemic problem and we will keep hearing those horror stories until we do something about it."
Faraday offers 22 recommendations in her Metcalf Foundation funded report titled "Made In Canada: How the Law Constructs Migrant Workers' Insecurity," which found that abuse of migrant workers is endemic. Faraday's proposals include allowing work permits to be tied to an industry or a province rather than a single employer. She also advises the government to "reverse" the trend of temporariness and allow all workers the chance to apply for Canadian residency.
Faraday, together with other lawyers, Ai Li Lim and Charles Gordon, and union leaders Joe Barrett and Gil McGowan, emphasize the need for enforcement mechanisms: a civil body or employment standards investigators to ensure labour laws are respected. It's not like it's not possible. In Manitoba, for example, all employers and recruitment agencies must be registered with the provincial government, and inspectors are sent to worksites.
Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan calls the Manitoba government's system the "gold standard" of protection for migrant workers. Because of the oversight, the federal government will not process an application for a migrant worker if the provincial government believes that an employer would break labour laws. To Faraday, this collaboration suggests that "national standards" can be accomplished to provide "front-end protection against migrant worker exploitation."
Manitoba also transitions many migrant workers into permanent residency through the Provincial Nominee Program, through which 90 per cent of its economic immigrants come. From 2005 to 2009, Manitoba granted residency to 13,089 foreign workers, representing 38 per cent of all nominees, whereas Ontario accepted only 1,247 in that same four-year span.
In 2011 the federal government introduced changes to the TFWP to "provide further protections for temporary foreign workers while alleviating temporary labour shortages." These three changes include:
• ensuring the "genuineness" of the job offer;
• banning employers for two years if they fail to respect wages and working conditions;
• imposing a limit of four years in which migrant workers are eligible to stay in Canada -- and they cannot return until another four years has passed.
The first change, say critics, is virtually meaningless, while the second is not being enforced. There is currently not a single employer on the blacklist -- and no regulating body exists to find and ban bad employers. Only the last change -- limiting stays to four years -- is actually implemented by the government, which, say critics, merely serves to heighten workers' disposability in Canada. Within four years, workers most likely would have improved their language skills, have learned their rights, and be more willing to unionize.
Protections do exist: government
An October report by Jeremy J. Nuttall in The Tyee that a recruiting company was asking Chinese coal miners to pay an illegal $12,500 recruitment fee to gain work in B.C. through the Temporary Foreign Workers Program raised further concerns about the mistreatment of migrant workers. Two Canadian unions responded by launching a judicial review to investigate whether the workers were given employment authorizations, also known as a Labour Market Opinion, that ensures Canadian workers were sought before recruiting miners from China. As the controversy over the HD coal mine in Murray River grew, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada announced that it was already investigating the entire Temporary Foreign Worker Program.
HRSDC says the government is concerned over the "integrity" of the program. "When Canadians are not available to fill vacancies, temporary foreign workers who are hired must be treated fairly and the same as Canadians doing the same job," says Marian Ngo, press secretary for Human Resources Minister Diane Finley.
The other federal department that oversees the TFWP, Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), says it has plans to further protect workers. In an email, CIC communications representative Paul Northcott told The Tyee that the government introduced "new legislative authorities that will allow for inspections of employers, including site visits, to verify their compliance with program requirements" as part of the Economic Action Plan 2012. He also highlighted separate efforts of provincial governments to prevent abuse, such as Ontario's June 2012 inspections of recruitment agencies, Manitoba's and Nova Scotia's requirement for employers and recruiters to be provincially registered, and Alberta and Saskatchewan's new legislation to crack down on unscrupulous agencies and improve transparency.
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan isn't impressed. The provinces took responsibility because they had to "fill the vacuum" of inaction on the part of Ottawa, he said.
"The federal government has literally spent tens of millions of dollars on expanding the TFWP and introducing mechanisms to speed approval for the employers but they spent barely a cent on investigation and enforcement [to protect the workers]," he added.
McGowan also expressed doubt about the CIC's announced changes, noting that he and the Alberta unions have been asking for changes for at least five years. "Given the Harper government's reluctance to spend on public services, I remain skeptical about whether or not they will actually put the resources in place to make these rules anything more than a paper tiger."
Temp workers and Canada's job landscape
Earlier in this series we met Costa Rican Jose Salguero, one of the imported workers who helped build the Canada Line railway for pay so low they took action by joining a union and winning a BC Human Rights Tribunal decision. We met Filipino Alfredo Sales, who fought to reclaim over $6,000 in lost wages from Denny's, and leads a class action suit on behalf of dozens more migrant workers the restaurant chain employed. Workers like Jose Salguero and Alfredo Sales require courage to stand up for themselves by filing legal action. According to McGowan and Faraday, low-wage workers in general tend not to complain to the authorities over employment violations until after they quit and find work elsewhere. Adding their temporary status to the equation makes it all the more risky.
Industry argues that Canada is a big country with a lot of tough or specialized jobs that need doing in hard places, and that foreign workers can be the only way to fill the need. But critics respond that the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, wittingly or unwittingly, creates Third World conditions for migrant workers, and risks putting similar pressures on the domestic workforce. By moving entire employment categories, which Canadians will always have a need for, to non-resident workers, the TFWP encourages economic dependency abroad while discouraging the development of local job markets. It's outsourcing by insourcing from abroad, a two-tiered system wherein no one wins.
The lack of enforceable rules allows major corporations, medium-sized businesses and even middle-class Canadians who need caregivers to do as they please with migrant workers. Neither SELI and SNC Lavalin, who paid their Latin workers a fraction of what they paid Europeans, nor Denny's, who did not pay for Filipino workers' airfares and overtime work, -- nor even Sinopec, who was ruled responsible for the deaths of two Chinese oilsands workers, due to safety violations -- have paid any fines. Nor have they been banned from hiring migrant workers in future.
Becoming the 'Dubai of the North'
McGowan believes that the continued use of migrant labour will heighten racial tensions, as local and foreign workers are pitted against each other. "It flies in the face of Canadian values and it's being used as a tool to undermine the Canadian labour market," he says. The AFL believes that the system is broken, that the Temporary Foreign Worker Program should be scrapped and replaced with permanent immigration -- the way Canada was before.
"We're not saying that Canada should stop bringing workers from overseas to work in our economy, he says. "What we are saying is that this is not the way to do it."
The risk with the current loosely regulated system is that the hard-won rights to eight-hour work days, overtime pay, medical coverage and worker protections may be eroded by transnational corporations who have access to a cheap workforce that is more docile by the nature of the regulatory framework.
"If they can mistreat foreign workers I don't think it's long before they mistreat domestic workers as well," says lawyer Charles Gordon. He also says eventually migrant workers will want to stay – and they will, "legally or illegally." Other experts anticipate that the nearly half a million migrant workers present in Canada in 2011 could go underground when they are expected to return to their home countries after four years in accordance with new legislation.
"The United States is an example of that, where you have a lot of illegal foreign workers but they're working and they're a significant part of the economy," Gordon says.
McGowan draws a comparison to other countries. "We're becoming the Dubai or Saudi Arabia of the North, not only because we have oil, but because we're abandoning real immigration in favour of using an exploitative guest worker program to fill our most menial and undesirable jobs. We've joined a global underground railway trading in human misery. It's a shameful transformation and a betrayal of Canadian values and our traditional approach to immigration."
The Tyee, Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013
Byline: Krystle Alarcon
CALGARY — The boom in U.S. shale oil and natural gas production threatens to cut off a key supply of skilled temporary foreign workers for Alberta companies, as more tradespeople opt to work on large infrastructure projects in the United States despite the lure of dramatically higher wages in Western Canada.
"There's going to be a battle between what goes up north versus what comes down south," said Mike Bergen, executive vice-president of Sugar Land, Tex.-based market research firm Industrial Info Resources.
Advances in drilling technology have unlocked new supplies of crude oil and natural gas from hard-to-reach reservoirs across much of the U.S. By 2025, shale gas alone could add more than one million workers to the U.S. manufacturing industry, according to a fall report published by PricewaterhouseCoopers, reducing costs for raw materials and energy by as much as US$11.6-billion annually.
"You get a big [liquefied natural gas] project that takes place and then you get several of these big refinery projects and then here comes a new ethylene plant," Mr. Bergen said. "That's going to draw a lot of labour."
Alberta's perennially tight labour market means average wages for electricians, boilermakers, plumbers and pipefitters, carpenters and structural steelworkers are anywhere from 70% to 136% higher than median U.S. wages, depending on the trade, according to a five-year outlook published Monday by Industrial Info.
The high wages contribute to an operating environment already seen as one of the most expensive regions in the world from which to extract oil, at a time Alberta's heavy blend of crude, Western Canada Select, is subject to steep price discounts in the U.S.
Larry Matychuk, business manager for the Edmonton-based Local 488 branch of the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, said the base wage rate for members is $43.77 per hour plus benefits.
He said the union regularly turns to its U.S. affiliates for additional tradespeople during "shut down season," a four-month annual stretch when refineries and bitumen upgrading plants shut down for maintenance, exacerbating worker shortages.
"We've had 200 to 300 of them up here at a time," he said of the U.S. tradespeople. "We expect that that's going to increase. We offer jobs to Canadians first. However, there is work picking up across Canada now. There's work in Saskatchewan; there's work in Newfoundland. Work is starting to pick up in Ontario and B.C. We don't have access to as many of the Canadians as we used to have."
ExxonMobil Corp. said last week it was moving ahead with its US$14-billion Hebron development offshore Newfoundland and Labrador.
The project, designed to recover more than 700 million barrels of oil from the Jeanne d'Arc basin roughly 350 kilometres southeast of St. John's, will employ up to 3,500 people during construction, the Irving, Tex.-based energy giant said.
That could spell trouble for Alberta oil producers. The latest figures compiled by the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada suggest at least 9,500 jobs could go unfilled in the country's oil and gas industry by 2015.
Oil sands production is poised to increase 44% by then from today's levels, to 2.48 million barrels per day, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
An influx of U.S. tradespeople could help with facility expansions needed to boost production, Mr. Matychuk said, "if the Americans are available at the time when we need them."
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, expressed concern about Americans filling Canadian jobs in the oil sands.
"We're not talking about sharing a cup of sugar with them," he said in an interview. "We're talking about jobs that pay in excess of $100,000 a year. We should not be allowing these jobs to go to people outside of Canada without first doing everything we can to provide opportunities to Canadians."
The point may be moot, as workers in the U.S. help rejig facilities to meet new sulphur specifications in gasoline plus accommodate soaring production of U.S. shale oil fields.
Refiners are "engaging in some pretty big projects" on the Texas Gulf Coast, Mr. Bergen at Industrial Info noted. "We're anticipating some pretty decent expansion work on distillate and crude conversions for taking the shale crude," he said.
Financial Post, Monday, Jan. 7, 2013
Byline: Jeff Lewis
Reports of exploited foreign temps have grown as fast as the federal program.
First in a series.
They hand you a soothing cup of Tim Hortons, pack frozen beef in factories, pick blueberries and apples on Abbotsford farms, serve fast-food meals and wipe tables, excavate mines and drill for oil in Western Canada, and raise your kids as if they were their own. Typically paid far less than Canadians, unprotected by labour laws, and disposed of when their contracts end, these migrant labourers have become ubiquitous while remaining all but invisible.
Under the Conservative government, the pool of migrant labour has expanded rapidly with almost no public discussion or oversight -- yet who benefits, and at what cost?
There were 300,111 migrant workers in Canada in 2011-- a more than three-fold increase over the previous decade. Another 190,769 entered that year, creating a temporary foreign workforce of nearly half a million. In 2010, the government accepted one and a half times more migrant workers than permanent Canadian residents.
Migrant workers have been cycling in and out of Canada since 1972, when the Non-Immigrant Employment Authorization Program was introduced. In 2002 it expanded to become the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) to service the oil and gas industries in Alberta.
Since the Conservative government of Stephen Harper came to power in 2006, the TFWP has expanded rapidly, becoming an unseen pillar of Canada's economic policy. That year, migrant workers admitted to Canada exceeded permanent residents for the first time. And for the first time, employers no longer had to advertise for a minimum of six weeks on a national job bank before being granted permission to hire a migrant, but could do so after just seven days. The shortened processing was a gift to employers, who were allowed to designate workers they needed under "Occupations Under Pressure."
So fast growing are such designations that between 2007 and 2011, the program created a total of almost 30 per cent of all new jobs -- this at a time when the government, grappling with the financial crisis, claimed that creating jobs for Canadians was a key priority. And in 2012, under a little-noted provision of the omnibus budget bill that managed to avoid public debate by sliding in with so much other legislation, the Conservatives introduced changes for high-skilled workers such as dropping application times from 12 weeks to 10 days and permitting employers to pay them 15 per cent less than the average Canadian salary for the same work.
Critics argue that such changes lower standards for all workers, and that it won't be long before the majority of migrant workers, who are considered "low-skilled" in fast-growing sectors such as construction, hospitality, caregiving and agriculture, can legally be paid less than Canadians -- a trend that is already happening, due to the lack of oversight. Many endure mistreatment that, in the most severe case to date, has cost lives.
On April 27, 2007, Canadians woke up to news that two Chinese migrant workers employed by Sinopec Shanghai Engineering Canada near Fort McMurray had been killed when a tank's structure fell on them. Charged with violating safety standards, Sinopec, a part owner of the pipeline transport company Enbridge, initially argued that the Chinese state-owned company "has no official presence" in Canada and therefore did not fall under Canadian jurisdiction. Only recently, on Oct. 10, 2012, did the company plead guilty to three safety violations.
Growing list of abuses
Reports of migrant workers being exploited by powerful corporations have increased almost as fast as the TFWP.
In Oct. 2008, migrant workers at Maple Leaf Foods in Edmonton went on strike with their Canadian counterparts for not receiving the $15 per hour promised in their contracts. Many relied on food banks during the strike as they couldn't survive on the strike wage of $230/week and could not, because of the nature of their work permits, work elsewhere.
On Christmas Eve of 2009, four migrant workers, whose names and the company they worked for were not disclosed, died when the scaffolding of the building they were constructing fell on them.
In May 2009, youth and multiculturalism critic and Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla was criticized for allegedly abusing her caregivers from the Philippines, by forcing them to do work outside their contract and underpaying them.
In Nov. 2010, the UN's International Labour Organization found Ontario, and Canada, guilty of violating the rights of 100,000 migrant and domestic farm workers in the province by banning farm unions. In May 2011 three Filipino temporary workers, dubbed "the Three Amigos," were deported when their permits became invalid after their employers in Alberta laid them off due to the recession. They worked at a Manitoba gas station for another employer who promised to change their permits, but never did.
Storage tank roof collapsed in April 2007 killing two Chinese migrant workers employed by Sinopec Shanghai Engineering Canada near Fort McMurray. (CBC)
In May 2012, a union staged a blacklist tribunal in front of the Mexican consulate for all the farm workers who have allegedly been sent home for attempting to unionize. Later in June, the exotic dancer stream of the TFWP was cut after the immigration and the human resources departments deemed that there were risks of human trafficking and exploitation within the stream. And this fall the premier of B.C. was severely criticized for advertising a Chinese mining project as a way to bring jobs to Canadians, when up to 2,000 Chinese migrant workers will be recruited to work in mines -- rather than offering the jobs to locals, including the First Nations from those areas. The job ads also listed Mandarin as a language requirement, ruling out most Canadians from applying.
It was also discovered in an investigation by The Tyee that Chinese workers were being charged recruitment fees of more than $12,500 in exchange for work in the mine. Two unions have challenged the Chinese workers' entries, through a judicial review that was approved by the Federal Court. As the controversy grew, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada announced it was reviewing the entire program.
XL Foods, based in Alberta, also came under fire for laying off 2,000 workers, 800 of whom turned out to be migrant workers, after the massive beef recall in September 2012.
And earlier in November four Mexican migrant workers filed a human rights case against their employer at Tim Horton's in Dawson Creek, B.C., who they say gave them the "double-double" treatment, by doubling them up in bunk beds and charging them double in rent, as well as withholding their passports and calling them, according to reports, "Mexican idiots" -- charges their employer said were "made up."
Alberta's two-tier labour system
Alberta currently has the highest per capita use of migrant workers, largely due to the oil sands projects -- 22 times higher than the rest of the Canada -- and their situation reveals troubling rates of mistreatment. As a 2010 audit by the Alberta Ministry of Employment and Immigration discovered, 74 per cent of migrant workers were mistreated by their employers, who typically violated labour laws on overtime, holiday and vacation pay.
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, sees the treatment of migrant workers as an issue that affects Canadians directly. "They are being used as pawns to drive down wages and conditions across the board, especially in the service sector but also in higher income sectors like construction."
McGowan thinks the growing reliance on temporary foreign labour is a move backwards for Canada: "The Harper government is changing that model in a profound way without any kind of public discussion: to replace the citizenship-based model with a model focused on creating underclassed ghettos of exploitable workers."
He foresees future labour tensions, such as those in Western Europe and the Middle East where "guest workers" perform work their citizens refuse to do. "It set off a powder keg of resentments and animosities between the guest workers and the citizens of the countries in which they are working," he says. The citizens felt that the guest workers "were being used to undermine their wages and conditions, which frankly, they are."The Tyee, Monday, Jan. 7, 2013
Byline: Krystle Alarcon
Suncor Energy's attempt to randomly test thousands of its oilsands workers for drugs and alcohol is back under scrutiny as proceedings began again this week.
Arguments are being heard in a labour arbitration in Calgary, with proceedings between Suncor Energy Inc. and the Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers union Local 707 that represents 3,4000 workers, the Globe and Mail reports.
Last November, Alberta's top court dismissed an appeal by Suncor Energy over its plan to randomly test thousands of its oilsands workers for drugs and alcohol.
Justice Jean Cote spoke for the majority at the time, calling Suncor's plans "a significant breach of worker's rights," while upholding an injunction that would prohibit the company from testing employees without cause.
New Brunswick's Irving Pulp and Paper is also looking to randomly test employees for alcohol as its mill operations , with the case reaching the Supreme Court of Canada, according to the CBC.
The outcome of these high-profile cases may determine if such testing expands to other workplaces in Canada, CBC adds.
Substance abuse among workers is already a concern in Alberta's oil and gas industry, as workers are exposed to heavy machinery. According to the Globe and Mail, Alberta's courts have been much more likely to allow drug and alcohol testing than in Canada's Eastern and Maritime provinces.
The union argued last year that random testing is an affront to basic human rights, and the Alberta Federation of Labour called the court decision a victory.
"Employers like drug testing programs because they give the impression that something decisive is being done about safety," Federation president Gil McGowan said in a news release at the time.
"But these programs don't improve safety. Employers know that, so it's little more than very expensive public relations."
Suncor spokeswoman Sneh Seetal said that the oilsands giant was disappointed in the court's ruling.
"We know alcohol and drugs are a pressing safety concern at our Wood Buffalo sites and we will present evidence to support this during the arbitration process."
She said three of the seven workers who died while on the job at Suncor's site since 2000 were under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time.
"Our view is one fatality is too many."
The union has agreed to certain types of drug testing in its collective agreement, including pre-employment screening and with-cause drug testing, and says there is no evidence that random drug testing makes workplaces safer.
The Huffington Post Alberta, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013
With files from CP
A pilot program that would fast-track the immigration process for trades workers began accepting applications Wednesday is a welcome change for the oilsands, says Oil Sands Developers Group Executive Director Ken Chapman.
However, Chapman says the program doesn't address challenges the natural resource sector has with immigration policies and as a result, the demand for blue-collar workers in Wood Buffalo and the oilsands will likely intensify in 2013.
The changes to the Temporary Foreign Workers program will reduce much of the red tape needed for trained foreign workers that specialize in 43 occupations. Some of these jobs include heavy-duty mechanics, ironworkers, millwrights, electrical work and welders — all jobs that are in short supply in Alberta.
Only 3,000 workers will be admitted through the program, a number Chapman says is problematic.
"That number alone is nowhere near to meeting the needs of Wood Buffalo or the oilsands, let alone other big projects in Canada," says Chapman. "We need skilled workers quickly and we're still competing with other markets with their own labour shortages."
While manufacturing has wavered in the last ten years, natural resources jobs have emerged as key industries for Canada's economic success.
British Columbia and Saskatchewan are both beginning to exploit their shale gas and oil deposits on a massive scale, while the territories, Ontario and Quebec have increased activities in their natural mineral and metal mining sector.
The program, titled the Federal Skilled Trades Program, gives preference to applicants with Canadian job offers and have a basic knowledge of English or French. At least two years of work experience in their trade is a bonus.
"Canadian employers have long been asking for ways to get the skilled tradespeople they need to meet demands in many industries across the country," said Immigration Minister Jason Kenney on Wednesday. "We've listened to their concerns and created this program in response."
In July, the Alberta Federation of Labour told Today they were skeptical of the program and were worried that it would allow fewer safeguards for foreign workers.
Nancy Furlong, secretary-treasurer of the AFL, pointed to a 2010 provincial report that found 74% of employers who used the Temporary Foreign Worker program had violated the Employment Standards Act regarding pay rates and record keeping.
"Canadians should get first crack at these jobs. But the Harper government is more interested in the bottom line of their friends in the non-union construction sector," she said. "The result is employers can use these workers in ways that Canadians might not tolerate,"
To meet the labour demands in northeastern Alberta, Chapman says more needs to be done to make the region more accommodating to the needs of foreign workers.
"The last census saw about 15% of the population here came from outside of Canada. That should be sufficient to have, at least on a visiting basis, immigration counselings so workers can deal with immigration issues here, not in Vancouver, Edmonton or Calgary," he said. "We need to give them more flexibility, make it easier to become citizens, easier for their families to come over if they're here long-term."
Chapman would also like to see language classes for promising skilled workers, rather than see them turned away due to a language barrier.
"If they're qualified and good on the tools but have problems in language, let's help them and not reject them," he said.
Fort McMurray Today, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013
Byline: Vincent McDermott
The recent meat recall at XL Foods Inc. in Brooks, Alberta is not wanting in superlatives.
It is one of the most massive meat recalls in Canadian history involving one of the country's largest beef packing plants that processes more than 4,000 head of cattle a day. Meat tainted with E. coli sickened a four-year-old boy and numerous others, resulting in the facility being shut down for a month and thousands of workers laid off.
Management of the beleaguered plant, owned by Brian and Lee Nilsson — brothers with a family tradition of ranching — has since been taken over by JBS USA, a leading animal protein processor in the United States and Australia.
Media coverage of this incident has focused primarily on public food safety. Justifiably so, considering that the meat processed by XL Foods is shipped to more than a dozen countries. But little has been said or heard about the invisible, voiceless workers — many of whom are temporary and foreign — toiling behind the walls of the plant. What are the occupational health and safety risks they are exposed to when handling pathogen-tainted meat that sickened so many?
A summary of non-compliances compiled by the Canada Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) at XL Foods noted multiple deficiencies in sanitation and maintenance: grease build-up and blood clots on the evisceration table; broken eye/handwash tap; large amounts of fat and meat build-up throughout; water pooling on the floors; a foul odour from a drain near the rendering room; condensation on the kill floor and in the offal hallway dripping onto boxed products; antimicrobial dripping onto rusty pipe and products; improper airflow at the processing floor; and bung bags in contact with a sink.
"This is dirty, dangerous work even in the best of circumstances," says Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour in Edmonton. "It is clear to us that there are both food safety problems and work safety problems at the Brooks packing plant and in many cases, the two are related."
Bob Jackson, regional executive-vice president for British Columbia with Public Service Alliance of Canada in Vancouver, says work conditions in meatpacking facilities and slaughterhouses are "almost indescribable" at times. "There has always been hazards involved in this line of work, just the environmental conditions that people are put into. You are dealing with heat, humidity, constant alerts around moving equipment and slippery floors," says Jackson, who was a former meat inspector.
Workers face a risk of direct exposure to pathogens by being in contact with contaminants that are aerosolized when handling carcasses stained with blood, feces and bodily fluids in a steamy environment with temperatures routinely reaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit with almost 100 per cent humidity, Jackson notes.
While workers are provided with personal protective equipment, they may not be utilized to the fullest extent, considering the discomfort of donning additional clothing, hard hats and goggles that can steam up under such conditions. "You can imagine what that might feel like in terms of real world protection," he adds, noting that it was quite routine to see workers not wearing the necessary protective gear.
"It is up to management in these facilities to ensure their employees are taking proper precautions and sometimes, the management is not totally on top of it," Jackson suggests.
One-third of the 2,200 employees at XL Foods comprise temporary foreign workers, although that number fluctuates. Finding workers has been a chronic problem in meatpacking facilities, particularly in isolated communities such as Brooks, a two-hour drive from Calgary.
"There are many days when Brooks simply did not have enough people on the line to maintain speed," McGowan notes. "And that has obvious implications for both food safety and workplace safety, because inexperienced workers tend to be more vulnerable to workplace accidents and they are also less likely to be familiar with food safety protocols."
He reports conversations with plant workers who say line speeds are too fast for them to keep up. "On average, they are dealing with about 260 carcasses every hour, which does not give them enough time to follow safety protocols, but also increase[s] the likelihood of injuries when it comes to the use of their knives and also puts what we would describe as undue stress on their bodies."
Through the years, technology and mechanization have shaped how work is being done in meatpacking facilities. When Jackson started working in the industry back in the '80s, he recalls handling up 40 to 50 carcasses every hour. While there is a lot more mechanization today to perform some of the functions, he says it is "an incredible speed requirement," citing poultry carcasses going by on an evisceration line at two or three birds a second.
"It becomes almost impossible to do a proper job, to do it safely, to make sure that your equipment is properly sanitized in between carcasses, that people are given opportunities to ensure their tools and equipment are in top shape," Jackson contends. Blunt knives, which require the use of greater force, also increases the likelihood of cuts should the knife slip. "If you are trying to incise lymph nodes with a knife for instance, you have to do it at a speed that will allow you to keep up," he adds. "Your brain is spinning at that speed trying to concentrate on doing any kind of a real function."
Line specialization also means that workers are performing the same movements hundreds of times for hours each day, putting them at an elevated risk of repetitive strain injuries, notes Dr. Amy Fitzgerald, assistant professor in the department of sociology, anthropology and criminology at the University of Windsor in Ontario.
While different estimates have been made on the speed of lines, which varies depending on the slaughterhouse, the most commonly-used estimates are those in larger facilities that process 400 head of cattle an hour. "Based on the estimates I have seen, the line speeds in North America are said to be double of what they are in Europe," Dr. Fitzgerald says.
"Line speeds are based on a very complex arrangement of factors," Jackson notes, citing considerations that include physical constraints of the plant, workers' profile and level of training, the type of livestock being processed and the condition of animals when they come into the facility.
Doug Powell, professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine's department of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, concurs that line speed is a factor in safety, "but not a concern if attention is being paid to worker and microbial safety."
Food safety management systems incorporate a series of hurdles in the processing system, which contributes to a cumulative decrease in the possibility and number of pathogens present in the food supply, notes information from the CFIA. Hot water and steam pasteurization, application of organic acids and evaluation of the safety and efficacy of antibacterial agents prior to application are among the measures used.
Should a line speed surpass a worker's capacity to effectively perform the requisite food safety functions, inspectors and veterinarians appointed by the agency have the authority to order an immediate cessation of production. "Federally-registered meatpacking and processing establishments must satisfy all requisite occupational health and safety requirements," says Ronald Davidson, government and media relations director with the Canadian Meat Council in Ottawa.
Line speed is intrinsically tied to the stunning of animals, which has a bearing on worker safety. Animals that are improperly stunned thrash about as they are being hoisted, presenting a significant risk to the sticker, who has to cut the throat of the beast weighing hundreds of pounds.
"There has been many incidents where animals from a wide variety of species are not stunned adequately," Jackson points out, adding that this was a frequent occurrence even before high line-speeds came into the picture. He describes scenarios in which animals that escape the stunning process end up on the kill floor alive and running around.
In the poultry business where stunning is largely mechanized through electrocution, "there are many incidents of animals not being stunned before going into the scalding process for instance, so there is the inhumane aspect as well as the safety aspect," Jackson notes.
However, that does not mean workers can let their guard down when handling a properly-stunned animal. Chris Fuller, general manager with Alleghany Meats in Monterey, Virginia cautions that even an immobile or unconscious animal is dangerous to approach as its nervous system is still reacting. "There is a lot of thrashing and a lot of movement still," Fuller describes. "You have to be very diligent in the way you approach them and making sure that you are keeping yourself safe when you do so."
Workers should watch out for signs of improper stunning by looking at the side of the animal to see if there is ribneck breathing. Blinking of the eyes is another indicator. In such cases, the animal needs to be restunned before it is killed. "That is proper procedure through the entire industry."
There is also the mental health aspect of working in places where animals hang upside down all day long. "These environments are incredibly difficult to work in," Jackson suggests.
But little research has been done in this area to offer insight on the mental repercussions on those who toil in these environments. "We really don't have systematic information about it," says Dr. Fitzgerald, who co-authored a study in 2009, examining the relationship between slaughterhouse employment levels and crime rates. Results were compared with other manufacturing industries with similar labour force composition, injury and illness rates, but engage in inanimate materials of production.
The study, Slaughterhouses and Increased Crime Rates, hypothesizes that the work of killing animals in an industrial process may have social and psychological consequences for workers over and above other characteristics of the work. It examines slaughterhouse facilities in 581 counties. The data, accessed through the United States Census Bureau's County Business Patterns, covers the period from 1994 to 2002.
Results indicate that the slaughterhouse employment variable has a significant positive effect on arrests for rape and other sex offences — effects not found in the comparison industries. An average-sized slaughterhouse, which employs 175 people, would be expected to increase the number of arrests by 2.24 and the report rate by 4.69. The expected arrest and report value in counties with 7,500 slaughterhouse employees are more than double the values where there are no slaughterhouse workers.
The study argues the results lend support to the argument that the industrial slaughterhouse is different in its effects from other industrial facilities. "Many of these offences are perpetrated against those with less power and we interpret this as evidence that the work done within slaughterhouses might spill over to violence against other less powerful groups, such as women and children."
An earlier study, which looks at 1,404 non-metropolitan counties in the United States from 1990 to 2000, arrived at similar conclusions. Counties with growth in meatpacking employment experienced faster growth in violent crime rates over the decade relative to counties without packing plants.
The psychological trauma of slaughterhouse work can be inflicted on workers in several ways: perpetration-induced traumatic stress (PITS), empathy suppression and violating the natural preference against killing, notes a study published in 2008 by Jennifer Dillard of Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C. While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is responsible for protecting workers in the United States from workplace hazards, "the lack of psychological regulation is due to the agency's prioritizing of more traditional, physical health issues and the 'perceived exigency' of these problems," she contends.
Perpetration-induced traumatic stress is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by being an active participant in causing trauma. Occupations that can put workers at risk of PITS include soldiers, executioners and police officers, where it is socially acceptable or even expected of them to cause trauma, including death. Symptoms of PITS include substance abuse, depression, increased paranoia and a sense of disintegration. Dillard notes in her study that substance abuse, which is prevalent among slaughterhouse workers, is evidence of the adverse psychological impact associated with the nature of their work.
The intensive, production-focused nature of factory farming and meatpacking facilities also requires workers in such workplaces to suppress their spontaneous empathy for animals. "By habitually violating one's natural preference against killing, the worker very likely is adversely psychologically impacted," Dillard concludes.
NOW AND THEN
As of October 29, XL Foods Inc. resumed operations under enhanced CFIA oversight and increased testing protocols. A statement from the CFIA notes that agency inspectors closely monitored plant operations, including the uploading and screening of animals, pre-operation inspections, slaughter and the cutting and processing of carcasses. It has also requested the company submit corrective action plans outlining how they will address these issues in the longer term and mitigate future risks.
But the situation was rather different back in early September during the onset of the investigation when the CFIA seemed to have difficulty obtaining information from the plant. That prompted federal agriculture minister Gerry Ritz's comments that agency inspectors could have been "more hard-nosed" when dealing with the plant responsible for the country's largest beef recall.
Information from the CFIA indicates that on September 6, the agency requested from XL Foods distribution information and testing results for all products produced on the days when the affected products were made. This was followed by a formal letter on September 7 stating that the company must respond by the following day. The information was provided in a series of submissions over two days on September 10.
"If we did not get what we needed or had requested, we would stop the production line," Jackson says of his time when meat inspectors were given clear direction on where their authorities lie. "What seems to have happened now is inspectors are not being given that direction to the point that they will feel uncomfortable, perhaps stopping the line or taking something out of production," he suggests.
McGowan observes that through the years, the meatpacking industry has been moving towards a policy of self-regulation. The shift started more than a decade ago when the CFIA, created in 1997, came under the responsibility of the agriculture ministry. While federal meat inspections are still being conducted in packing plants, he notes that there is increasing reliance on written reports furnished by quality control officers employed by the plant.
"It is very clear that cuts and deregulation have compromised both worker safety and food safety," McGowan says, stressing the need for more rigorous enforcement. "When it comes to safety, it means more inspectors, more boots on the ground, a greater willingness to shut down plants that are not in compliance. And it also means tougher prosecution."
In a statement issued in October of 2012, the Alberta Federation of Labour and the United Food and Commercial Workers union called for a public inquiry into the tainted meat debacle to address issues, such as the level of authority and mandate of CFIA employees, line speeds and if there is adequate training and whistleblower protection for workers.
"The results of Canada's system of self-regulation have already been criticized by American inspectors," the statement notes. "Over the last decade, several United States Department of Agriculture inspections have flagged problems with beef processing plants in Alberta."
As a sign of things to come, the federal government will stop inspecting provincially-licensed abattoirs in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba by 2014. Effect from December 31, 2013, British Columbia will take over from the CFIA the responsibility of meat inspection for provincially-licensed Class A and B slaughter facilities. The inspection of federally-licensed abattoirs and other issues of federal jurisdiction will remain under the CFIA.
The British Columbia ministries of Agriculture and Health held extensive consultations with the province's livestock and slaughter industries about the new meat inspection system for provincially licensed abattoirs. Inputs from these consultations, collated in the July of 2012 report, Summary of Industry Consultations of the BC Abattoir Inspection System Review, "reflects the observation that the B.C government will face challenges in implementing a meat inspection system that responds to the needs of all parties. This is especially true in an industry as diverse as B.C.'s meat processing industry," the report states.
Jackson concurs that the agriculture ministry's mandate to act in the interest of the agricultural sector can restrict its regulatory role of ensuring that food products produced by the very industry it is tasked to promote meets federal health standards. "It does raise the spectre of the potential for conflict," he suggests. "I don't recall there being such large incidents of E. coli, Listeriosis and these massive numbers of recalls on an annual basis for a whole wide variety of things."
E. coli, a bacteria that exists naturally in the intestines of cattle, poultry and other animals, can be transferred to the outer surface of meat during butchering. Some of the most common ways to be infected with E. coli are improper handling of raw ground meat, consumption of undercooked ground meat and contact with feces of cattle. "The bacteria that contaminates the meat can also infect individual workers who come into contact with it," Dr. Fitzgerald cautions.
ON THE GROUND
Fuller understands the challenges of ensuring smooth operation in a meatpacking plant and keeping workers safe at the same time. But the newly-constructed facility where he works makes his job a tad easier. "It is a very new plant. Everything from the handling facility down to the cutting and wrapping have kind of been thought through as best as possible."
He reveals that when the plant had just finished construction in February, they did not realize it would be handling bisons. "So when we got a customer who is talking about a consistent volume of bison coming through here, we invest in upgrading our handling facility to handle these bisons, which are different than cattle. They have a lot more energy."
The type of livestock being handled has an influence on the design of a facility. "The way our facility is set up, we have a way to move the animals without actually getting into the pen with them and I think that is really important," Fuller says. "Humane animal handing has a lot to do with stress so always keep them calm, not getting the animals riled up. That is very helpful in keeping everybody safe." Having more than one worker in a handling facility also allows them to watch each other's backs, he adds.
Keeping the environment sanitary is also key, especially on the kill floor where slips and trips are a real hazard. That means exercising diligence in spraying a floor down if blood is present, keeping the floor free from debris and liquids that could cause other hazards and removing remnants of fat or meat particles from the evisceration process. "You try to avoid having the opportunity to have a lot of bacteria build up in various areas where it will affect the workers or food safety," Fuller cautions. Frequent handwashing and keeping knives clean with sterilizer boxes where knives can be dipped are among the preventive measures, he adds.
Verbal communication is also important in alerting workers to hazards. Physical dangers abound in an environment where carcasses are constantly being moved across rail lines. "When you have a 600-pound carcass coming down the line, you got to be careful," Powell cautions.
Workers also need to be adequately trained to safely do their jobs, considering that meatpacking plants often employ a high proportion of migrant workers. "The industry has become quite adept at recruiting the most marginalized population that are quite vulnerable," Dr. Fitzgerald suggests.
McGowan agrees. "A lot of these temporary farm workers are very reluctant to speak out for themselves when it comes to any issue, especially safety issues. They want to stay in Canada and so they keep quiet, keep their heads down and continue working."
In a meatpacking facility in Colorado where Fuller used to work, he recalls working alongside employees from Mexico, some of whom spoke little English. To address the language barrier, he had a bilingual worker translate the standard operational procedure, which was written in English, into Spanish for reading by the Mexican workers as part of their training. A supervisor was then assigned to provide hands-on training. He also made sure that a worker who speaks only Spanish would not be placed to work alongside purely English speakers. "I have somebody who spoke Spanish around so they could communicate effectively with the whole group," he adds.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
The CFIA says the tainted meat incident at XL Foods cannot be attributed to a specific problem. However, there are a number of factors that, when considered collectively, may have contributed to the incident. These preliminary findings are already being considered by both the CFIA and the meat industry. The review has resulted in some modifications to previous practices, the Canadian Meat Council reports.
"A good place to start is slowing down line speeds," Dr. Fitzgerald suggests. "It has been ratcheted up to increase profits, but it really is causing more problems for workers and for meat safety." She suggests that the industry's high turnover rate has led to on-the-job training falling by the wayside.
For Powell, enforcement certainly has a part to play, but so does company culture. "What they need is a culture that values food safety and worker safety as much as it values profit."
Jackson is of the mind that an emphasis on controlling the environment as much as possible is needed. Sufficient resources should be made available to ensure that workers have proper breaks away from the lines and their mental capabilities are looked after. "I don't know if there have been studies done on the long-term effects of being exposed to these environments over a person's career. I'm sure it can't be healthy."
For that to take place, a fundamental change to the legal and regulatory frameworks needs to be effected. Although Dillard's study is framed within an American context, her recommendations on ways to improve the mental health of meatpacking plant workers nevertheless have resonance for Canada, which shipped $24 billion worth of meat products worldwide in 2010.
She recommends that a regulatory framework for psychological safety in slaughterhouses be developed under the mandate of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. "Just as OSHA inspectors can pinpoint workplaces that are hazardous to an employee's physical safety, OSHA inspectors could use their inspections to pinpoint workplaces that are hazardous to psychological safety," Dillard writes.
Workers' compensation can also serve as a legal scheme to redress the psychological harm associated with slaughterhouse work. Dillard argues that such a system would encourage employers to maintain psychologically healthy work environments and provide monetary relief to employees who suffer from ongoing, pervasive psychological trauma due to the violence of their workplace. "A typical slaughterhouse should be considered an ultrahazardous activity for psychological well-being, and employers should be liable for psychological damage caused by the work," Dillard contends.
In 1906, Upton Sinclair's novel, The Jungle, caused a public furor with its descriptions of morbid conditions in meatpacking houses in the Chicago stockyards during the early 20th century. The Federal Meat Inspection Act was created in the same year the novel was published.
"I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach," wrote Sinclair in reference to the unintended consequences of sparking an outcry against the sector. Hopefully, the XL Foods incident — which has hit many Canadians in the stomach — will also accidentally touch our hearts.
BEHIND THE WALLS
Meatpacking facilities are not accessible to members of the public, but it does not take much imagination to figure out how the ubiquitous use of sharp knives, handling animals and high line speeds converge to create an environment conducive for accidents and increased repetitive movements. A look at injury statistics can put that in perspective.
In 2010, Alberta's meat, hides and pelt products sub-sector had a disabling injury claim rate of 12.42 per 100 person-years worked — the highest of any manufacturing, processing and packaging sub-sectors, notes information from Occupational Injuries and Diseases in Alberta.
Hands and fingers are the most commonly injured body parts (27 per cent), followed by the back (13 per cent) and shoulders (11 per cent), notes information from Workplace Health and Safety Queensland in Australia.
OHS, January/February 2013 issue
Byline: Jean Lian, Editor of OHS Canada