Following a record 53 charges laid against three companies for a 2007 accident that killed two workers at the oilsands work site, the Alberta Federation of Labour blames the provincial government for not being more vigilant to prevent such a tragedy.
Alberta Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) announced 53 charges yesterday in connection to the April 24, 2007, accident that also injured four other workers, two seriously, at the Canadian Natural Resources Horizon project, about 75 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.
Twenty-nine charges were laid against CNRL, the operator of the Horizon site where the accident occurred. Another 14 charges were laid against contractors SSEC Canada Ltd. and 10 against the Sinopec Shanghai Engineering Company Ltd. The charges included several counts of failing to ensure the health and safety of the workers. Other charges include failing to ensure that a professional engineer prepared and certified drawings and procedures; failing to ensure the roof support structure inside the tank was stable during assembly; failing to ensure that U-bolt type clips used for fastening rope wire were installed properly; and failing to ensure that wire rope being used was safe. The three companies are expected to make their first court appearance June 8 in Fort McMurray.
Hong Liang Liu, 33, an electrical engineer, and Genbao Ge, 27, a scaffolder, died after a roof collapsed in a large oil tank where they were working. Both were non-union employees of Sinopec Shanghai Engineering. CNRL had contracted the company to build the tanks in 2006. Liang had been in Canada since September 2006, while Ge arrived in January 2007. Four other Chinese labourers were injured in the collapse. All were temporary labourers.
No one was injured when a second tank collapsed a few weeks later because the area was still under a stop-work order that covered the three of the 15 tanks from the April 24 accident.
"For the duration of the Horizon project, we maintained a strong safety record on the construction site. We were deeply saddened by the tragic deaths of the two contract workers and the related injuries to the associated contract workers. Our heartfelt sympathies are again extended to their families, friends and co-workers," said CNRL in a statement issued yesterday afternoon.
Through that same statement, the company noted that as the incident is now in "formal legal proceedings," it will issue no further comments until the matter has been resolved.
Meanwhile, the Alberta Federation of Labour says that once it was learned that a company from a Third World country with substandard construction safety history had been contracted to do the work, the government should have immediately stepped in to ensure the safety of the site."The government ignored the warning signs," said Gil McGowan, AFL president.
Saying the provincial government dropped the ball, he said when it became public knowledge that CNRL was hiring a Chinese contracting firm to do all the work involved in construction of the tank farm, the provincial government should have stepped in to ensure this company was observing Canadian standards for both worksite safety and construction practices, and not importing substandard Third World practices.
McGowan said it's a company that has had all of its experience in China, which has an abysmal record when it comes to workplace safety especially in the construction industry.
"That fact alone should have been setting off alarm bells for provincial regulators and inspectors. The government should have had its inspectors on that site from Day 1 supervising the project and making sure Canadian practices and rules were being observed," he said. "That didn't happen, and the result was this unprecedented tank collapse, which took the lives of two workers and inured four others." McGowan said this is a tragedy that could have been prevented if the government had seen the red flags and sent inspectors to the site even before ground was broken. Everyone involved in the construction industry knew this was an accident waiting to happen.
"The real tragedy here is that the government ignored the warning signs."
An important lesson from this case, he said, is the government needs to be extra vigilant when it comes to construction companies coming into Canada from abroad that are not familiar with the Canadian construction context and that are not up to speed on Canadian health and safety rules or accepted Canadian construction practices.
"We think that the Chinese contractors' lack of familiarity with Canadian standards and practices is at the root of this tragedy. Frankly, we're concerned that they imported substandard practices along with their management team."
Though he's pleased the government is proceeding with charges against the companies involved, McGowan said he's "troubled" over the time it took and is concerned Crown prosecutors "dragged their heels."
"We think what happened on the CNRL site was one of the most serious violations of occupational health and safety rules and standards that we've seen in this province in a long time, and this is clearly a case where the companies involved have to be held to account," said McGowan, acknowledging it was satisfying to see the charges hadn't forgotten the injured workers. Some of the charges, all laid under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, also take into account the injured workers and the severity of their injuries as well as workers present when the accident occurred.
But the bigger concern for the AFL is that it's not convinced the charges are enough to prevent a another incident. The only way to avoid such a repeat is if the provincial government becomes more serious about enforcing its own health and safety rules, especially on construction worksites before accidents happen instead of waiting until after someone has died.
"Despite the number of charges being laid, it will be the courts that will determine the facts of the case, and determine the appropriate penalties, if any," said Barrie Harrison, OH&S spokesman, yesterday. The OH&S Act allows for up to a maximum $500,000 fine for each charge.
It's expected the Crown will only move ahead on those charges that carry a reasonable likelihood of conviction, Harrison said.
"Whether it's 53 charges or one, Occupational Health and Safety takes workplace health and safety extremely seriously and whether it's an injury on site or a death, or in this case a double fatality, all are taken seriously. I think our record over the last number of years when it comes to the number of charges and prosecutions have proven that."
When a workplace accident - fatal or not - occurs, OH&S has two years to lay charges. In this case, charges came three days shy of the deadline.
The investigation takes a number of months and is followed by a review of the file and work with Crown prosecutors to determine what charges, if any, are warranted.
"It's that process that takes a fair bit of time," said Harrison. More important, he added, OH&S had to ensure this investigation was proper and thorough because it was focusing on the loss of two lives.
"At the end of the day, that's probably the most important thing. To us, of course, regardless of where these workers are from, their place of origin, or country of birth, has no bearing, because every worker in Alberta has to be treated the same, and these are people who have friends and families and co-workers like the rest of us, and they deserve nothing less."
During the OH&S investigation, Alberta Employment and Immigration determined that 132 Chinese temporary foreign workers were not paid from April to July 2007. Their employer was SSEC Canada, and it is yet not clear why they weren't paid.
As a result, CNRL transferred $3.17 million to the province within the past couple of months for distribution to these workers.
"These funds are now held in a government trust account and we've begun the process of verifying individuals' identity and establishing a process for the distribution of these unpaid earnings," said Harrison. "We want to make sure that we do exercise all due diligence to ensure that these are getting directly in the hands of those who deserve it."
Meanwhile, he said the province will make "every reasonable effort" to collect the money from SSEC. If successful, CNRL will be reimbursed accordingly, he added.
Fort McMurray Today, Wed Apr 22 2009
Byline: Carol Christian
The president of the Alberta Federation of Labour says the dozens of charges laid Tuesday in the deaths of two foreign workers aren't enough.
Gil McGowan says while the charges are unprecedented, it's taken far too long for them to be laid.
And, he says the government still needs to put tighter restrictions on international companies who don't have experience in Canadian construction standards.
Three companies face a total of 53 charges in the deaths of two temporary Chinese workers at an Oilsands project near Fort McMurray two years ago.
CHQR Newsroom, Wed Apr 22 2009
EDMONTON - The death of two foreign workers from China at a sprawling oilsands project in northern Alberta has led to the most charges ever laid in a single workplace accident in Alberta.
The Tory government announced Tuesday - two years after their deaths - that three companies face a total of 53 charges in the collapse of a giant holding tank at a construction site in April 2007.
The charges against Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (TSX:CNRL) and two other companies have been laid under the province's Occupational Health and Safety Act.
The maximum penalty for a first offence under the act is $500,000 for each charge.
Sinopec Shanghai Engineering Company Ltd., and SSEC Canada Ltd. also face numerous charges including several counts for failing to ensure the health and safety of the workers.
But Barrie Harrison, spokesman for Alberta's labour ministry, said the province has not been able to serve the charges on the Chinese engineering company, which no longer has an office in Calgary.
"At some point there may have to be clarification by the courts as to whether we have jurisdiction to charge this company," he said. "Our prosecutors are not going to lay the charges unless they feel we have jurisdiction."
"But at this point, we're expecting all three companies to appear in court June 8th in Fort McMurray."
The two Chinese workers were killed and two others were seriously injured when the roof of a huge oil container collapsed as it was being put in place.
The charges include failing to ensure that a professional engineer prepared and certified drawings and procedures and failing to ensure the roof support structure inside the tank was stable during assembly.
The construction was part of expansion at the Horizon oilsands project near Fort McKay, about 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.
Harrison said it's the largest number of the charges laid in relation to a single workplace incident in the province.
Premier Ed Stelmach said the province places the highest priority on worker safety.
"We've got to be very clear to anybody that's doing business in Alberta," he said. "Whether it's a temporary foreign worker or an Albertan, these are the rules that you follow and the safety of workers is paramount."
One of Alberta's most outspoken labour leaders says this deadly incident was especially shocking because oilsands companies have a relatively good safety record.
"Up until that incident, fatalities were a rarity in the oilsands," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
McGowan also says the labour group's own research has confirmed that there have been almost no accidents in the province involving large oil storage tanks.
"We weren't able to find any other example of either tanks collapsing during construction or after they've been built," he said.
The labour leader is glad the companies involved are being prosecuted and wondered why it took two years for the charges to be laid.
The premier said the investigation was "very complex."
McGowan also raised concerns about labour safety standards before the collapse.
"The big question for us is where was the provincial government before this accident happened?" said McGowan.
"While these prosecutions are welcome, it's a little bit like closing the barn door after the horses got out."
Hector Goudreau, Alberta's minister of employment and immigration, said the charges reflect the government's concern about protecting workers.
"The fact that there's 53 charges is an indication of how serious we're taking this," the minister told reporters Tuesday.
"But having said that, the oil and gas industry is one of the safest places to work when you look at the thousands of people that are involved."
New Democrat Rachel Notley scoffed at the minister's remarks, saying Alberta has a poor record when it comes to worker safety.
"If you want to stop people from dying on the job, you have to inspect before the accidents happen," said Notley. "You have to have enough people in the field to do the inspections.
"People didn't have to die for them to finally get that message."
Canadian Natural Resources issued a statement late Tuesday.
"For the duration of the Horizon Project we maintained a strong safety record on the construction site," it said. "We were deeply saddened by the tragic deaths of the two contract workers and the related injuries to the associated contract workers."
A spokeswoman for SSEC Canada Ltd. said the company received the charges late Tuesday afternoon and wanted time to review them before offering comment.
Canadian Press, Tues Apr 21 2009
Byline: Jim Macdonald
A year after Premier Ed Stelmach said he was considering electoral reforms to limit outside advertising during campaigns, a government backbencher is introducing a private members' bill that would do just that.
"What it does is, it opens up the process, it makes it more accountable and transparent," Airdrie-Chestermere MLA Rob Anderson said. "It also treats third parties exactly like political parties during election periods, so it sets up the same contribution limits that political parties have on them."
If Bill 205 is approved, trade unions, employee organizations, corporations and other organizations would have to register with the chief electoral officer before they advertise, and would have to reveal where all their money comes from and how it's spent.
Critics say Anderson's bill is a direct response to Albertans for Change, a group of unions that spent $2 million in 2008 on an anti-Conservative campaign.
After his party won 72 seats, leaving the Liberals and NDP with 11, Stelmach said he was considering legislation that would change electoral financing laws, including banning or limiting third-party spending during campaigns.
The legislation was never tabled, but Anderson's bill would bar money from being raised outside Alberta by third parties and fine those who break the rules.
"I'm not sure there ever was a real problem about anonymous ads. This piece of legislation may be dealing with a problem that never existed," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
The Albertans for Change banner included McGowan's organization and the Alberta Building Trades Council, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, the Health Sciences Association of Alberta and the United Nurses of Alberta. The advertising campaign accused Stelmach of having no plan.
Anderson said his bill has nothing to do with targeting unions, and could easily be used to limit rich individuals or oil companies, too.
Edmonton-Gold Bar Liberal MLA Hugh MacDonald said he has many questions about the bill. "This bill as it's drafted, in my opinion, it's not fair and it's not balanced," he said. But NDP Leader Brian Mason said the bill doesn't go far enough.
"I don't support third-party financing in election campaigns at all," he said.
Edmonton Journal, Sat Apr 18 2009
Byline: Trish Audette
In its first deficit budget in 16 years, the Alberta government anticipates dipping $4.7 billion into debt in an attempt to keep Albertans working through the recession.
Central to the budget is the province's capital plan that has $7.2 billion in infrastructure spending in 2009-2010, which is part of its three-year commitment to spend $23.2 billion building roads, schools, hospitals and other public infrastructure.
Bill Stewart, president of Merit Alberta, the province's open shop association, said he believes the budget will maintain momentum for Alberta.
"It's a reaffirmation that the government has committed to its infrastructure commitments it has made to Albertans," he said.
"There has been an ongoing need for infrastructure investment and the government appears to be stepping up to the plate."
The investment is a $1 billion or 4.5 per cent increase from the previous three-year total and will allocate $5.8 billion for provincial highways, $5.6 billion for municipalities, $3 billion for health facilities, $2.9 billion for schools and post-secondary facilities, $1 billion for affordable housing, $1.7 billion for climate change initiatives and $325 million in contributions for federal stimulus programs.
Although the government ramped up spending by $1 billion over its previous three-year capital plan, the majority of the increase will be spent on carbon capture initiatives.
Municipal infrastructure and provincial highway projects saw a $621 million and $457 million increase, but other parts of the plan saw decreases in spending compared to 2008-2011 levels.
Premier Ed Stelmach's Conservative government anticipates that this year's $7.2 billion infrastructure investment will support more than 80,000 jobs across a province struggling from lower energy revenues and the effects of the global recession.
Stewart said that he believes the province's decision to slash infrastructure spending in the wake of the post-9/11 market contraction was a mistake.
"This (the recently announced infrastructure spending) will come at a good time - there are more contractors that are out there bidding for work now, so it's a pretty competitive environment," he said.
But not everyone in the province sees the budget in a positive light.
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), said that while he was pleased the government resisted the temptation to revisit Klein-style cuts, he felt the budget fell short of the mark in helping Alberta's unemployed, particularly those in construction trades.
"Our big concern is that, despite it's packaging, this is not a stimulus budget - it is almost a carbon copy of last year's budget," he said.
Daily Commercial News and Construction Record, Fri Apr 17 2009
Byline: Stephen Dafoe
The Alberta Federation of Labour is disappointed, but not surprised that two hundred full time Petro Canada employees have been laid off.
President Gil McGowan says it can be blamed on the stall of the Fort Hills Oilsands Project.
But he also expects more layoffs due to the merger of Petro-Can and Suncor.
The company says the layoffs have nothing to do with the merger and can be blamed solely on the delay in the Fort Hills project north of Fort McMurray.
CHQR Newsroom, Wed Apr 15 2009
Union leaders questioning the entry of foreign workers into Canada are potentially inciting public opinion against newcomers, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said yesterday.
The statements angered Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan who accused Ottawa of setting up foreign workers to be exploited.
Following a speech to a small audience at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, Kenney said McGowan's criticism of the use of non-Canadian workers and the need for them "was playing on some old and really unfortunate sentiments.
"I wish this individual was a little more reasonable and restrained ... the union leadership needs to be a little more responsible."
AFL officials have argued the use of foreign workers undercuts and drives down wages.
Kenney said they're doing work Canadians are unwilling to perform and said his government, despite the recession and rising unemployment, will maintain its practise of encouraging immigration and foreign labour.
"We've actually made the politically difficult decision to maintain historically high levels of immigration ... the worst thing we could do is starve employers who are growing during these economically difficult times," said Kenney.
McGowan accused Kenney's ministry of "washing its hands" of temporary foreign workers once they arrive and who are routinely abused by their employers.
"We're the ones who set up an advocacy office to help workers who are exploited -- we're the ones picking up the pieces," said McGowan.
"I find it galling Kenney's trying to wrap himself in the cloak of virtue."
Kenney said his government is stepping up its monitoring of foreign workers' treatment while making it easier for the newcomers to become permanent residents and citizens.
But McGowan said of a rapidly-growing number of the workers, only 3% of them are eligible for permanent residency.
"It creates an underclass of workers," he said.
Edmonton Sun, Wed Apr 15 2009
Byline: Bill Kaufmann
Alberta's temporary foreign worker program has no oversight and is mired in so much bureaucracy that employers are allowed to treat hopeful immigrants like indentured labour.
That's what a federal committee travelling Canada to examine immigration issues heard in Edmonton yesterday, during a lengthy meeting in which several interest groups blasted the provincial and federal governments.
"Alberta's temporary foreign worker program is inherently exploitive and treats people as disposable. I can assure you Canada's reputation in foreign countries has suffered a great deal," Yessy Byl told the committee of MPs.
Byl is a TFW advocate with the Alberta Federation of Labour, and her comments were echoed by other groups, including the Mennonite Centre for Newcomers and Ukrainian Canadian Social Services.
All agreed that TFW programs would not be as burdened if the federal immigration department wasn't so maddeningly inefficient.
"Of the hundreds of workers I've dealt with in the last two years, almost all have come here not to work but to emigrate. They are using the TFW program because our immigration system is so dysfunctional," Byl said.
"I don't think we have a clue as to how great this problem is. There is currently no system by which we can legitimize the workers that we so desperately need," she said.
"In the meantime, brokers and employers bringing these workers here are running around unchecked, illegally charging recruitment fees, housing workers in homes with up to 14 other people and making huge sums of money renting out houses.
"People are being lured here with the promise of $12 an hour jobs only to arrive and find themselves on the wrong side of the poverty line."
Other speakers said Canadian embassies in eastern Europe make it notoriously difficult for people to enter Canada.
HARD TO EMIGRATE
"On the one hand we have this great campaign encouraging foreigners to emigrate to Canada, yet on the other hand we have an immigration system that makes that increasingly difficult," said Bill Diachuk of the Ukrainian group.
Committee chair and Conservative MP Doyle Norman appeared to sincerely listen to the concerns, while other committee members from all federal parties asked presenters to suggest solutions to the problem.
Those included amnesty for illegal immigrants with established jobs and establishment of watchdog groups to protect the rights of foreign workers.
Edmonton Sun, Wed Apr 2 2008
Byline: Brookes Merritt
The minimum wage in Alberta is going up on April 1 from $8 per hour to $8.40. The Alberta government has put in place a system where the minimum wage is tied to the "average weekly wage index" from Statistics Canada. Every April 1 the minimum wage will automatically increase to keep pace with other increasing costs and wages in the province.
"Alberta's experiencing a time of great prosperity," said Premier Ed Stelmach in a press release. "Wages have increased about five per cent and we're ensuring minimum wage earners are sharing in this growth."
About 70,000 Albertans or 3.5 per cent of the province's working population are paid at minimum wage. Most Albertans make much more than minimum, with the province's median pay at $20 per hour according to Alberta Employment and Immigration spokesperson Stephanie Francis.
Most minimum wage earners are employed by the food service and hospitality industries according to the Alberta government. In 2006 nearly half of such earners were 15-19 years old.
The Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) criticizes the wage increase as being too low, recommending a minimum wage of at least $10 per hour. In a press release the AFL said a higher minimum wage would have a "ripple-through effect" that would raise wages throughout the province.
Government spokesperson Francis said the amount of increase was "about keeping the balance between minimum wage earners and employers."
The increase will briefly bring Alberta's minimum wage to the fifth highest in Canada, third among the provinces. Ontario will have the highest minimum wage for adults, which will go up to $8.75 on Mar. 31. That will edge out Nunavut at $8.50. But minors and liquor servers have lower minimums in Ontario.
Other provinces and territories of note:
- Yukon will go up to $8.58 on Apr. 1. Yukon increases its minimum every year to keep pace with the consumer price index from Statistics Canada. This is a different index than what Alberta uses.
- Manitoba will raise its minimum to $8.50 on Apr. 1.
- New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador have equal or lower minimum wages, but both provinces are set to increase them this spring.
- Saskatchewan will raise its minimum to $8.60 on May 1.
- The lowest minimum wage in Canada will be in Prince Edward Island at $7.50.
- The NWT's minimum wage will remain steady at $8.25.
Barb Wyness of the Union of Northern Workers said they have proposed a $10 per hour minimum wage in the NWT, to be recalculated annually to keep pace with StatsCan's standard of living index.
Slave River Journal, Thurs Mar 27 2008
Workers at Petro-Canada and Suncor won't know until late summer or fall how the promised layoffs will affect the merged company, or how many jobs will be cut in the name of operational savings and elimination of "significant overlap."
The creation of Canada's largest energy company will bring together a combined workforce of 12,500 workers, including 3,500 in Suncor and Petro-Can's headquarters in downtown Calgary.
The city's oilpatch has already suffered hundreds of white-collar layoffs amid depressed energy prices, and it's expected to absorb a lot of the staff reductions that come as part of the merger's proposed $300-million cut to yearly operating expenses, analysts predicted.
Rick George, who will remain CEO of the new and larger Suncor, said executives won't determine a"head count"or layoff total until after the proposed merger has been approved in four to six months.
"It's not just that we're going to put some number out and then try to achieve it,"he told financial analysts Monday in a conference call.
George said the company will act quickly to quell staff uncertainty once the merger actually happens.
"I don't want to minimize the concern about jobs, especially in these difficult times."
Outside the city's Petro-Canada Centre, workers said they were instructed not to speak with the media.One employee said she didn't know what would happen.
"I'm still confused myself," she said, declining to give her name.
The last mega-merger in Calgary was when PanCanadian Energy Corp. and Alberta Energy Co. combined to form EnCana in 2002. Weeks after that deal, the new firm cut 310 jobs from a total workforce of 3,800.
Suncor's proposed operational cuts amount to roughly three per cent of the companies'combined 2008 expenses, although spokesman Brad Bellows said not all savings will come through staff reductions.
Analyst Phillip Skolnick said the "overlap"George spoke of would likely be in divisions like engineering and management, rather than on the front lines at oilsands plants spread across northeast Alberta.
"On a labour level, you need the people who put the metal together to be there," said Skolnick, of Genuity Capital. "I
can't see really any cuts being there. It's more head office."
Gil McGowan of the Alberta Federation of Labour said cuts will likely be in the hundreds or low thousands, mostly in non-unionized office staff.
"Whenever you have one of these big mergers, the results aren't pretty for employees," he said.
In predicting the layoffs, George said the pain will be short-lived.
"I do want to underline that, in the mid-to long term, with the plans we have ahead of us, this merger will be a strong contributor to job creation as we pursue growth in ways that would not be achievable on a stand-alone basis," he said.
Petro-Can and Suncor had each cut a small number of contractor positions in recent months, following decisions to delay oilsands expansions.
It's unclear where in Calgary the massive company will be headquartered. Petro-Can employees occupy 40 floors in the twin towers of Petro-Canada Centre, which includes Western Canada's tallest skyscraper.
Last fall, the oil company renewed its lease there with Brookfield Properties through 2028.
Calgarians derisively dubbed the granite building "Red Square" when it was built in the 1980s, a swipe at the federal Liberals who created the company during the oil-price shocks of the mid-1970s.
Suncor occupies part of Sun Life Plaza, a mere block away. The oilsands giant moved there after relocating its head office from Toronto in 1995.
Calgary Herald, Tues Mar 24 2009
Byline: Jason Markusoff