Letter to the Editor
Re: "Still solid," Letter, Sept. 7.
The Merit Contractors Association (Alberta) needs lessons in geography and reality.
Geography first. The oilsands are in Alberta - not "elsewhere." Now, the lesson in reality. These oilsands can be developed only in Alberta. You can't "go elsewhere" to get at them. Alberta's oilsands contain proven oil reserves of 171.3 billion barrels, the third largest proven crude oil reserve in the world.
Despite current fears over the economy, demand for oil will stay high. Royal Dutch Shell predicts global energy demand will triple by 2050. This means oil prices will remain at a level that encourages investment in our oilsands. Only eight per cent of the world's oil reserves are available to companies such as Exxon-Mobil, BP/Amoco, ConocoPhillips or Royal Dutch Shell without any restrictions. More than half of that eight per cent is in Alberta's oilsands.
The threat that investors will "go elsewhere" is an empty one. The labour code review that Merit seeks has nothing to do with Alberta's competitiveness. It is an attack on unions and is intended to undermine its competitors - employers who happily use unionized labour and are still able to win half the building contracts in the province. What Merit has asked for is that the Conservative government plays favourites, by tipping the scales in favour of Merit members over other employers. They are seeking a Merit Advantage, not an Alberta Advantage.
Gil McGowan, Edmonton
Calgary Herald, Mon Sept 19 2011
Edmonton Journal, Mon Sept 19 2011
Over the summer months, the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour and 25 additional plaintiffs (SFL et al.) filed their legal argument in the Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench related to the Charter Challenge by the SFL et al. against the Sask. Party government's unconstitutional anti-worker and anti-union legislation. Legislation which the Wall government introduced and passed in late 2007 and early 2008.
In what is arguably the largest lawsuit ever filed by working men and women against a sitting government in Saskatchewan (and quite possibly Canadian) history, the SFL filed its 230-page legal argument and tendered thousands of pages of evidence.
In support of the SFL et al.'s case, three additional intervenor unions filed thousands more pages of argument and evidence. The arguments of the intervenor unions re-inforced that the ill-conceived Bill 5 and Bill 6 violate workers constitutional rights as outlined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The intervenor unions are: Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE); Service Employees International Union -- West (SEIU-West); and the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses (SUN).
In addition to the Charter Challenge, the SFL and the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees Union (SGEU) won a case in March 2009 wherein the Sask. Party government was found guilty of violating Saskatchewan workers international human rights by the United Nations International Labour Organization .
The ILO requested that the Sask. Party government take action to repair the offending legislation in consultation with representatives of the labour movement. The government has steadfastly refused to comply with the ILO ruling and refuses to meet with the labour movement to discuss the matter.
This historic Charter Challenge case will be heard in the Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench from November 14 - 25, 2011.
rabble.ca, Fri Sept 16 2011
EDMONTON - Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk has stepped up his push to get permanent status for temporary foreign workers in Alberta after hearing of recent cases of abuse of some Filipina women.
These women were told they could gain permanent status if they had babies here — a false statement — and a handful were impregnated, Lukaszuk said.
Now their lives are complicated — pregnancy will soon force them to leave their jobs and accommodations. At that point, they have to leave Alberta and face going back home with their babies, he said.
The cases were brought to him by Women Changing Together, an organization that helps immigrant women, Lukaszuk said Friday.
"I wasn't surprised, having dealt with many cases of abuse as an MLA, but I was heartbroken," Lukaszuk said. "Over and over again, we see evidence that the prolonged use of temporary foreign workers is not a good thing."
On Friday, Lukaszuk sent a second letter to federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney reiterating Alberta's plea to grant permanent status to the 50,000-plus temporary workers currently in the province.
He also sent a copy of a report by parliamentary secretary Teresa Woo-Paw that concludes the temporary program is not a long-term solution to Alberta's labour shortage and carries significant negative impacts for the communities, workers and employers.
About 75 per cent of the complaints from foreign workers for violations of labour standards were upheld, — a substantial number, Lukaszuk said.
But those complaints may only show part of the problem, as many workers fear to bring their complaints forward, he said.
"These workers have the same rights and protections as Albertans, but in a practical sense they are not as likely to exercise those rights."
Lukaszuk says he's willing to look at the Manitoba system, one suggestion in the Woo-Paw report, but he did not make a firm commitment.
"That's putting a Band-Aid on a Band-Aid," he said.
Under that system, employers have to register with the province and show a clean record on upholding labour standards before they can apply to the federal government to bring in workers.
The report also calls for some government assistance to help smaller communities with integrating large numbers of temporary workers.
Gil McGowan of the Alberta Federation of Labour says he's pleased the minister recognizes that the temporary workers program is flawed and is not the best way to meet the labour shortage.
But like some other advocacy groups, the AFL urged the province to adopt the Manitoba system because is allows the government to track where temporary foreign workers are employed, at what kinds of jobs, and with what skill levels.
That kind of data makes it easier to enforce labour standards, McGowan said.
"We particularly need tougher inspection and enforcement to prevent the widespread abuse of vulnerable TFWs that we have seen in the past," he said.
Lukaszuk said it's impossible to pinpoint exactly how many Alberta employers now bring in temporary foreign workers, since the approvals come from the federal government. "But it would be in the tens of thousands," he said.
At the height of the boom, more than 60,000 were brought in, he said.
It's also impossible to know how many workers have stayed illegally and are working underground because the province does not track when contracts expire, he said.
The pressure on the workers to find a way to stay in Alberta is immense, said Lukaszuk, especially those from Third World countries.
"You can tell people as often as you want that they are temporary but many will do anything to stay. Back home, their entire family is living a middle-class existence thanks to their job here."
Canada brings in about 170,000 temporary foreign workers each year, while about 280,000 immigrants are allowed into the country annually.
Edmonton Journal, Fri Sept 9 2011
Byline: Sheila Pratt
Labour Day is a holiday to honour the contributions that workers make every day to the economy and the communities in which they live. It's supposed to be a day when working people can put down their tools, spend time with their families and take satisfaction in what they've built.
Unfortunately, this Labour Day, instead of honouring the people who build and maintain our province's economic engine, the Alberta Conservatives are considering new ways to give them the shaft.
In particular, Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk, is - yet again - rolling out the welcome mat for an industry group that wants the government's help to lower wages for working Albertans. Last time around, it was the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association that lobbied Lukaszuk for a lower minimum wage for workers who serve alcohol.
This time, it's an association of non-union construction firms. Calling themselves the Construction Competitiveness Coalition, they've asked Lukaszuk for changes to the provincial labour code that would make it difficult for unions to represent skilled tradespeople working on oilsands-related construction projects.
The motives of the coalition are clearly suspect. If they succeed in getting the changes they want, it would give non-union contractors an upper hand in bidding wars with unionized contractors (who, despite higher wages and benefits, continue to get half the work on Alberta's big industrial construction projects).
What the non-union lobby group is really asking the Tories to do is to use their legislative power to help one group of employers corner the market on industrial construction projects at the expense of another group of employers. They're also trying to transform the construction labour market so that skilled tradespeople have no choice but to work for non-union companies, even if those workers don't like the way the non-union firms deal with things like wages, benefits and safety.
Coalition spokesman Stephen Kushner says that Alberta needs to weaken unions because the province is "becoming known as a high-cost jurisdiction" and that this reputation is driving away investment. He even suggested that unions are to blame for the fact that 12 upgrader projects have been shelved.
These are what I call "snake-oil arguments": arguments that sound plausible on one level, but which rely on half-truths and leaps of logic.
It's true, for example, that costs are high in the oilsands. But union wages are not the problem. In fact, the recent agreement negotiated between unions and unionized construction firms provides exactly the kind of longer-term cost certainty that developers have been asking for.
The real challenges lie elsewhere. As a recent report from the consulting firm KPMG points out, costs are going up in the oilsands for several reasons, including increased costs for building materials like steel and cement; delays in engineering and project management; and the cost pressures that come with having too many major projects on the go at one time.
Most importantly, KPMG pointed out the obvious: the oilsands are expensive because it's hard to wring oil out of sand, especially in remote locations and in an inhospitable climate.
The suggestion that union wages caused upgrader projects to be shelved is equally ludicrous. Those projects were postponed because of falling oil prices during the global recession and they were mothballed for good because the Alberta government switched from promoting Alberta-based upgrading to acting as a cheerleader for mega-pipelines like the controversial Keystone XL, which make it more attractive to upgrade south of the border than in Alberta.
In the end, it can be argued that Alberta is a high-cost jurisdiction. But it can't be honestly argued that unions are to blame.
Busting unions won't make steel any cheaper and it won't improve our weather.
What it will do is enrich the owners of non-union construction firms at the expense of the owners and workers at other firms.
For the sake of the thousands of Alberta tradespeople who help keep our economic engine running, let's hope that all of the Tory leadership contenders see the non-union lobby group's proposal for what it is: a load of self-serving clap trap.
Gil McGowan is president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
Calgary Herald, Mon Sept 5 2011
Edmonton Journal, Mon Sept 5 2011
"Union-busting no way to mark Labour Day: Construction lobby group only concerned with itself, not Alberta's economic health"
Alberta workers are under increasing under fire as the province takes a day off work Monday to celebrate their contribution to our communities and our economy.
"The Alberta government has just launched a secretive, behind-closed-door review of the Labour Code at the request of an anti-union lobby group," says Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), which represents 145,000 workers. "It has sent the lobby group's biased proposals to selected stakeholders for review and appointed an unbalanced review panel without a single voice of labour. This unfair approach cannot hope to provide a reasonable outcome. It is at attack on the labour movement and an attempt to slash the wages of working Albertans," he says.
"It is also an unfair attempt to get the government to show favouritism to non-union employers over their business competitors who use unionized labour," he says. "Is that what the Conservatives really want to stand for: reduced competition between firms, reduced choice for individuals and reduced standards of living for skilled tradespeople?"
Meanwhile, right-wing think-tanks including the Fraser Institute continue their propaganda campaign to weaken working families and unions.
"The institute's latest clap-trap report blamed the cancellation of oil-sands construction projects after 2008 on high labour costs, completely ignoring the global recession, falling oil prices and the effect of soaring infrastructure and material costs," says McGowan. "It also ignored a change in direction by the Alberta government to focus on shipping raw bitumen – and jobs – down the pipeline to the U.S., rather than on encouraging upgraders to be built here."
After more than 125 years of celebrating Labour Day in Canada, the Alberta government continues to lag behind other jurisdictions in protecting its working citizens.
"Alberta is the only province where farm workers continue to be excluded from occupational health and safety laws, as well as laws governing hours of work and overtime, statutory holidays, vacation pay, the right to refuse unsafe work and compensation if they are injured on the job. Domestic workers are also unfairly excluded from employment laws that protect other workers," he says. "Alberta is also one of only two jurisdictions in Canada that allow kids as young as 12 to hold down adult jobs."
McGowan is available for annual Labour Day comments this weekend. He will be attending the Edmonton and District Labour Council Labour Day BBQ for the unemployed and underemployed at Giovanni Caboto Park/Boys and Girls Club, 95 Street and 109 Avenue, Edmonton, 11 a.m., Monday, September 5th .
Nancy Furlong, AFL secretary treasurer, is also available for comments and will be at the Calgary Labour Day BBQ for the unemployed and underemployed at Calgary Olympic Plaza, 228 - 8 Avenue S.E., Calgary at 11 a.m., Monday, September 5th .
Gil McGowan, AFL president @ 780-218-9888 (cell)
Nancy Furlong, AFL secretary treasurer @ 780-720-8945 (cell)
The Alberta government is quietly consulting with employers and unions about major changes to the labour laws that cover the province's massive construction sector.
Employment and Immigration Minister Thomas Lukaszuk ordered the review last month in the wake of a report and intense lobbying by an industry coalition which believes the current labour relations code is making Alberta companies uncompetitive.
"I'm not convinced changes are needed at this time," said Lukaszuk, "but I'm open to being convinced by any or all stakeholders."
The coalition - representing companies which are not unionized or where workers are represented by the independent Christian Labour Association of Canada - wants amendments that would significantly impact the roughly 300,000 workers in the province's construction industry.
Its key recommendations include:
- Allowing companies to complete projects under the terms that existed prior to certification or organization by another union;
- Restricting unions from fining their members when they work for nonunion employers;
- Prohibiting unions from using dues for political activities without the prior consent of employees;
- Limiting the time that striking workers can delay people who cross their picket lines;
- Stopping building trades unions and their contractors from subsidizing bids on smaller projects with market enhancement recovery funds from bigger deals.
The Merit Contractors Association - which represents 1,300 companies and over 40,000 workers that are not unionized - believes the changes are needed to ensure investors in Alberta oilsands aren't scared away by uncertainty about construction costs escalating out of control.
"We are becoming known as a highcost jurisdiction," Merit president Steve Kushner said.
"The province had 12 upgrader projects on the books that are now not proceeding."
Roughly half of the major industrial and commercial projects in Alberta are currently completed by the 60,000 workers represented by the province's building trades unions.
Eighteen of those 24 trades recently signed four-year agreements that tie wages to the price of oil and the consumer price index. Industry watchers have said the deal offers stability for big projects on the books and will help avoid the bumpy labour conditions seen previously in Alberta's roller-coaster economy.
"We've come up with an enduring solution," said Neil Tidsbury, president of Construction Labour Relations Alberta, the industry body that negotiated the deal.
Tidsbury said the government's review is the result of attempts by non-union companies to better position themselves to undercut his members on projects.
"The report that prompted this is packaged in the guise of making Alberta more competitive," he said.
"They're really saying don't let us ever get organized by the building trades. If we do get organized, don't let it have any effect on us, and if we can destabilize the building trades' relationship with their contractors, all the better."
Officials with the building trades union declined to comment on the review, but Larry Prins, CLAC's regional director, said the coalition's proposed changes would allow industry-wide unions like his to better compete with the building trades in its attempts to represent workers.
Lukaszuk has asked two Edmonton lawyers - John Hope and Dwayne Chomyn - to conduct the review and provide him with a report by the end of October.
"My job is to ensure Alberta continues to shine and not be responsive to individual knee-jerk requests," said Lukaszuk, "but if I find there is a need and the parties agree on it, then you will see changes."
Calgary Herald, Fri Aug 26 2011
Byline: Matt McClure
Minister’s secretive review of labour code fatally flawed: Biased process launched at the whim of lobby group, says AFL
A review of the labour code launched by Alberta employment minister Thomas Lukaszuk is doomed to fail unless the process is changed, says the province’s largest labour group.
“The minister has reacted to a request from a rabidly anti-labour group by embarking on an invitation-only review being held behind closed doors,” says Nancy Furlong, secretary treasurer of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), which represents 145,000 workers.
“The minister chose not to announce this review publicly, and only select groups have been invited to make submissions. He has appointed a review panel that does not include a single labour representative. Finally, the lobby group that instigated this review has made biased proposals aimed only at weakening unions,” she says.
“If you start with a biased proposition and appoint a panel that represents only one viewpoint, you are not going to get a balanced result. While this review is said to be aimed at the construction industry, any changes to the labour code will affect all working Albertans,” says Furlong.
She called on the minister to make the review process fully public, open and transparent, for submissions to be sought and accepted from all those wanting to participate and for the review panel to be widened to include labour.
“We are disappointed, once again, to find that the employment minister appears to be showing favouritism. The minister has a history of bowing to industry pressure. Earlier this year, he ignored an all-party committee’s recommendation on minimum wage and decided to impose a two-tier structure after intense lobbying efforts from the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association. He also listened to the farm-industry lobby in ignoring a judge’s recommendation to extend Occupational Health and Safety laws to cover farm workers after the death of Kevan Chandler,” she says.
“In 2008, the Alberta government responded to pressure from the anti-union Merit Contractors Association by passing Bill 26, which put severe restrictions on the ability of unions to operate in the construction industry,” says Furlong.
“This new call for a review is simply an attempt to by the Merit Contractors and the Christian Labour Association of Canada to tilt the laws in their favour – and to lower the wages and working conditions of all Albertans,” she says. “We expect our government to take a balanced approach. It has a responsibility to represent all Albertans. The government needs to fix this process now.”
Nancy Furlong, AFL Secretary Treasurer @ 780.720-8945 (cell) or 780.483-3021 (office)
Minister’s silence on farm-worker safety unacceptable, says AFL: Lukaszuk has failed to respond to calls for investigation of farm accidents
Workers on farms and ranches will mark the seventh annual Alberta Farm Worker Day tomorrow still waiting for the Alberta government to end its silence on a call to make their workplaces safer.
“Eight months ago, following the deaths of three farm workers, the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) was among those who wrote to Employment and Immigration Minister Thomas Lukaszuk with a simple request – to allow investigations into all farm-related deaths, serious injuries, or injuries involving a child. That request has been met by silence,” says AFL secretary treasurer Nancy Furlong.
“Farm workers put the food on our tables and fuel our economy. They deserve the respect of a response on this important issue. The families of the 160 workers who have died on Alberta farms in the last decade deserve a response,” she says.
In January, the AFL wrote to Lukaszuk asking that the Farming and Ranching Exemption be amended to allow for investigations into all farm-related deaths, serious injuries, or injuries involving a child. This could be accomplished by extending section 38 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act - which permits a Minister to convene a board of inquiry into the circumstance of an accident - to apply to the farming and ranching industries.
This change to the Farming and Ranching Exemption could be accomplished by a simple Order-in-Council and would result in a legal avenue for investigation into serious incidents involving paid farm workers. The information that would be obtained from these investigations would be invaluable in preventing future deaths and serious injuries on Alberta’s farms.
Today, the AFL has written a new letter to Lukaszuk, asking him to make this change – or explain to Albertans now why he won’t.
The AFL continues to urge the inclusion of all workers under the Occupational Health and Safety Act and Workers’ Compensation Act as the only equitable course of action. In 2008, after investigating the workplace death of Kevan Chandler, Justice Peter Barley recommended that farm workers be included in Alberta’s legislation to prevent future workplace injuries and deaths.
“Amending the Farming and Ranching Exemption would be a good first step towards making farms safer. It is inconsistent to say the government wants to improve farm safety when it does not investigate accidents to establish how they happened,” says Furlong.
MEDIA CONTACT: Nancy Furlong, AFL Secretary Treasurer @ 780.720-8945 (cell)
Alberta Employment and Immigration Minister Thomas Lukaszuk is promising to make workplaces in the province fairer, cracking down on employers who fail to pay fair wages and benefits.
Lukaszuk announced Wednesday the government is going to hire six new Employment Standards officers, increase the use of outside auditors and put out more information for employers so they know what is expected.
"I am putting those employers who don't comply on notice that we are stepping up our efforts to improve fairness for employees in Alberta through enforcement and education," he said.
He said the increase in inspectors was a necessary response to a move that department made last year to allow Albertans to file complaints online.
That new website was launched in December and, between then and the end of the government's fiscal year in April, the department saw a 20 per cent increase in complaints, rising to 6,484 claims from the 5,454 the department saw the year before.
"Our complaints have gone up so we are stepping up our officers to keep up with that."
Lukaszuk said that, while the move to allow complaints over the web has led to more work, it was clearly the right thing for the province to do.
"You want Albertans and temporary foreign workers and other Canadians who work in Alberta to feel comfortable and not be encumbered in their ability to file a complaint."
Lukaszuk said some employers in the province don't fully grasp the rules, while others are simply flaunting them, and it is that group the province will be keeping an especially close eye on.
"There are some who simply choose not to follow regulations and that is the group that we will be focusing on with additional enforcement."
Lukaszuk said the new inspectors should be in place within the next few weeks and the money was already part of last year's budget.
Liberal critic Hugh MacDonald called the government's move overdue and insufficient.
"This is a good first step. I would certainly encourage the minister now to rigorously enforce the employment standards act, through the courts if necessary."
MacDonald said it is unfair to responsible employers and hurts the economy when bad employers get away with bad behaviour.
"How can you compete if you are a good employer and other people in your sector are knowingly not paying vacation pay, short-changing employees on their wages?"
The Alberta Federation of Labour was also not warm to the minister's announcement, suggesting the government needs to take a more proactive approach.
"Resolving the complaint by providing one person their overtime doesn't change the pervasive belief that employers don't have to pay overtime," said Nancy Furlong, the organization's secretary-treasurer.
She said many workers fear retribution from their employer if they raise a complaint.
"I know — anecdotally, of course — quite a few people who won't enforce their own rights because they are certain they will be fired if they ask for overtime."
She said the government should do more to make sure workers know their rights.
"There needs to be some serious education of workers on their rights and their entitlements as opposed to a toolkit for employers."
St. Albert Gazette, Sat Aug 13 2011
New efforts by the province to stick up for workers who feel they are being treated unfairly by their employers is a welcome step.
The province announced this week it will hire six new employment standards officers and will increase the use of third-party auditors in order to deal with employee complaints about employers and improve compliance with employment standards. The changes were prompted by an increase in the number of complaints filed by workers since the province introduced a new 24/7 online complaint system last December.
The announcement was welcomed by a local voice for workers, the Lethbridge and District Labour Council.
"For too long, employees have had the cards stacked against them, even locally with students (who find) a lot of employers aren't paying holiday pay," said the president of the council, Richard Merrick, in a Lethbridge Herald story in Thursday's edition. "It's really hard for them to get any kind of justice."
Let's hope these changes by Alberta Employment will help deal workers a fair hand.
Sometimes a failure to adhere to employment standards might simply be the result of ignorance on the part of an employer. A new guide for employers to educate them about employment standards should help in that regard.
Other times, employees are simply taken advantage of by their employers and that's where the increased efforts to deal with employee complaints are especially needed.
"We're holding employers accountable and I'm putting them on notice - we'll be doing more than ever before to ensure fairness in the workplace," Alberta Employment and Immigration Minister Thomas Lukaszuk said when announcing the new measures.
Lukaszuk said while most employers treat their employees fairly, his department still receives complaints about maternity leave, unpaid overtime or vacation pay, insufficient termination notice, improper jobs for young workers and other violations.
It isn't only employers who need to be educated about employment standards. Workers, too, need to be aware of what their rights are as employees. Toward that end, the province has unveiled a new awareness campaign called "Tell Your Boss Where to Go." No, the campaign doesn't encourage workers to give their bosses a piece of their mind, but to direct them as to where they can go to obtain information about employment standards.
While the Alberta Federation of Labour praised the government's efforts to provide more enforcement of employment standards, Nancy Furlong, the group's secretary-treasurer, called the changes "a drop in the bucket, and it's the wrong focus. . . The focus should be on education. Somehow we have to make sure that workers and employers know what the rules are."
Even if workers know the rules, often they are afraid to challenge their employers, said Furlong.
If these new efforts do what they're intended to do, perhaps workers will be less afraid to stand up for their rights, and the province will stand up with them to see that fairness triumphs.
Lethbridge Herald, Fri Aug 12 2011