Alberta yesterday published a new "work force strategy" to attract more workers to the province's booming energy industry. The project, which involved industry, proposed 46 ideas to recruit, retain and develop the work force. Highlights include a mobile training facility, to be used in remote areas of the province, and development of a "one-stop" website with information about living in Alberta and working in the energy sector, in the hopes of drawing workers from other provinces. The Alberta Federation of Labour earlier yesterday said it is worried Alberta is relying too heavily on temporary foreign workers and is skeptical about the new strategy.
The Globe And Mail, Page B9, Wed July 11 2007
Byline: David Ebner
A worker shortfall in the energy industry could stall Alberta's motoring economy, although government and industry representatives outlined plans Tuesday to grapple with the problem.
Officials unveiled a 10-year workforce strategy for Alberta's energy sector, although there's no silver bullet solution to solving the problem, noted Cheryl Knight, executive director and chief executive officer of the Petroleum Human Resources Council.
"Change takes time and we're working on it," Knight said in an interview.
The Alberta government facilitated collaboration among 37 energy associations, organizations and employers to develop the strategy.
There are a number of areas where new workers could be sourced, Knight said. "Youth, immigration, temporary foreign workers, aboriginals, women. There really isn't one source."
The key, she said, is having industry promote the range of occupations.
"To attract the labour force of tomorrow we have to promote the oil and gas industry as an employer of choice."
At the end of July, the council is launching 'draw the world into your workplace' which is a 40-page workplace booklet to help companies reach out to the five under represented groups including youth, women, aboriginal peoples, immigrants and visible minorities.
Shying away from the human resource challenge is not an option as there is too much at stake, noted Brian Maynard, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
"It is increasingly difficult to find people with the right skills in sufficient numbers," he noted. "Forecasts suggest that by 2015, Alberta will be facing a worker shortfall of approximately 100,000 people."
Annual capital spending in the oil and gas industry tripled from $11.5 billion in 1998 to $36.6 billion in 2006. As of May 2007 there were $121.3 billion energy-related construction projects planned, underway or recently completed in the province.
As of April 2007, the oilsands (including upgraders) accounted for over $105 billion or 61% of all major construction projects planned, underway or recently completed in the province.
The total number of Albertans employed in the energy sector, as defined for the purposes of the strategy, was estimated at 146,000 in 2006. Approximately 132,000 individuals worked in oil and gas extraction and support activities. A further 10,000 were estimated to be employed in Alberta's electricity industry and 2,000 each in the coal and pipeline industries.
In 2006, the unemployment rate for mining, oil and gas extraction was three per cent, below the provincial average of 3.4%.
However, parts of the energy sector are experiencing demographic challenges. Economic downturns in the 1980s and early 1990s led to downsizing and the current demographic gaps in the workforce are due to the loss of experienced mid-career employees and difficulty in attracting new entrants, the strategy document notes.
As well, a number of occupations in the oil and gas and electricity industries are experiencing the challenges of an aging workforce. Forty per cent of the labour force in oil and gas supervisory, engineering, technology and operations-related positions are 45 years and older.
The energy sector also employs proportionally more men than women. Men represent almost 75% of the total workforce in mining, oil and gas extraction while they only account for 55% of all employed Albertans. However, the numbers of women in mining, oil and gas extraction are steadily increasing, up 9,600 between 2005 and 2006.
Some of the strategies are hoped to stem the problem before it becomes dire.
Key actions include developing information on career opportunities and occupations in the upstream petroleum industry and disseminate it to traditional and non-traditional pools of labour while continuing to promote careers in the trades (develop brochures, attend career fairs).
Others called for the exploration of alternative approaches to altering public perception of the oil and gas industry, partnering with government and individual communities to provide improved support programs and networks for integrating new immigrants, partnering with the Canadian Council of Directors of Apprenticeship to develop a strategy to improve the Foreign Credential Recognition (FCR) process, including the development of an FCR assessment tool for foreign trained construction trade workers and work to improve labour mobility within Canada, particularly for occupations in the trades (recognition of credentials, free movement of apprentices).
The Alberta Federation of Labour, however, was "disappointed" by the workforce strategy.
"Instead of substance all we have is vague intentions and promises," Gil McGowan, president, said in a statement. "We also note with disappointment that the union most involved in the energy sector, the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP) was not consulted.
"We had hoped to see proposals for changing the way we engage in workforce training in both our post-secondary and apprenticeship training systems. We also expected some specific goals and targets for dealing with the social and economic dislocation that drives workers away from isolated worksites and boomtowns like Fort McMurray."
Meanwhile, Petro-Canada's Andrew Stephens noted that with the company's stake in the oilsands, rolling out a strategy is key to address the labour needs going forward.
"The projected workforce for Petro-Canada on our Fort Hills project alone is expected to peak in the third quarter of 2009 at 8,000 construction workers and when operating will need 1,600 operations personnel and then on top of that we'll need the people to maintain the facility," he said.
Employment Minister Iris Evans said that if the strategies aren't followed, it could lead to a slowdown of economic growth.
"We've got a full and complete way to look at things," she said. "Expose young people to trades. Talk to kids in school."
Energy Minister Mel Knight added the solution will not come together at once.
"You put together a roadmap to bring those pieces together so that at the end of the day we can clearly see," he said.
Daily Oil Bulletin, Page 1, Wed July 11 2007
Byline: By Richard Macedo
With labourers pouring into Alberta from around the world in increasing numbers, Ottawa says it's exploring strict new penalties to crack down on businesses or other organizations that abuse temporary foreign workers.
Federal Human Resources Minister Monte Solberg said Monday he's concerned by reports of abuse taking place against foreign labourers, adding he doesn't want to see Canada's reputation harmed.
"We have an obligation to protect workers and, frankly, our good reputation as a country that treats people well," Solberg told a news conference in Calgary. Solberg said Ottawa is looking at putting new measures in place to address any abuses, including the possibility of penalties or refusing future requests for foreign workers.
He made the comments as Ottawa inked a memorandum of understanding with Alberta that will see the two governments work together to identify any organization "pushing the envelope" in their treatment of foreign workers.
Iris Evans, Alberta's minister of employment, immigration and industry, called the agreement "monumental."
"Although the number of complaints is low, this agreement will also help us better monitor the working conditions of foreign workers," she said.
With the number of temporary foreign workers in the province skyrocketing due to the labour crunch, there is growing concern that such labourers are being mistreated.
There are stories of workers being charged thousands of dollars in recruiting fees for coming to Canada.
Solberg said he's putting employers, labour brokers and unions on notice.
"We're today starting to take names, and anybody who we suspect is in a position where they're not treating people well will be held to account."
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said there were little details or substance in Monday's announcement.
"This is not an announcement about real policy change," he said. "What does it mean? That they're going to continue to study the program?"
McGowan said more concrete actions should have already been in place.
Dan Kelly of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said it's important that governments take a closer look at the temporary foreign worker program as it becomes a larger part of the mainstream workforce.
But he's worried the government will get tough on enforcing laws without having a debate about how a new set of rules will look.
The number of temporary foreign workers travelling to Alberta in 2006 increased 46 per cent over 2005 figures -- hitting an annual flow of 15,172.
Although Alberta has only 10 per cent of Canada's total population, it attracted 13.5 per cent of all foreign labourers who came to the country last year.
Calgary Herald, Page A5, Tues July 10 2007
Byline: Tony Seskus and Kelly Cryderman
Ottawa is eyeing new fines and penalties to protect temporary foreign workers whose rights are being trampled by "unscrupulous" employers and labour brokers, federal Human Resources Development Minister Monte Solberg said on Monday.
Labour leader Gil McGowan calls such workers a "growing underclass" in Alberta -- short-term recruits who may be mistreated by their bosses or are charged hefty and illegal brokerage fees to work here.
The workers are often uncomfortable reporting the abuses, fearful their employers will ship them home, he said.
Solberg admitted he's uneasy that the provincial government is mainly responsible for protecting foreign labourers, since immigration is traditionally federal jurisdiction.
The federal minister warned the problem could hurt Canada's image abroad.
"We have an obligation to protect workers and, frankly, our good reputation as a country that treats people well," Solberg told reporters in Calgary.
"I would say we're today starting to take names, and anybody who we suspect is in a position where they're not treating people well will be held to account."
Solberg would not say what sort of penalties Ottawa would impose on companies guilty of abuses or fraud, but suggested it could refuse any future requests for foreign workers.
Alberta's energy boom has triggered skyrocketing demand for foreign temporary recruits everywhere from the oilfields to restaurant kitchens. In May, Alberta employers requested 8,186 workers -- more than quadruple the requests in May 2006, federal figures show.
The province's Employment, Immigration and Industry department is hiring 39 new staff to help monitor and enforce its labour standards and the Fair Trading Act, currently the main ways to police the foreign workers' program.
Ottawa also wants to boost its capacity to cope with the size of the temporary program, which Solberg said his government wasn't prepared for. "There are unscrupulous people who see that as an opportunity to take advantage of these workers," he said.
Iris Evans, Alberta's employment and immigration minister, said foreign labourers often aren't aware of their rights, sometimes because of language barriers.
"Although the number of complaints is low, this agreement will also help us better monitor the working conditions of foreign workers," she said.
The Alberta and federal governments inked an agreement Monday to share more information on their handling of temporary foreign workers -- an area they fear sometimes falls into the cracks between the two jurisdictions.
McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said talk of penalties seems a small but good step, but both governments must do much more to monitor and root out problems.
The AFL set up a one-man advocacy office to field temporary labourers' complaints in late April and McGowan said he's been swamped with nearly 100 cases. He said the Edmonton office sees just a fraction of the problems Alberta-wide.
Solberg brushed off long-running complaints that the program takes jobs away from Canadians or is a bad alternative to traditional immigration, arguing temporary recruits are the best short-term solution to the current inflated demand.
"The temporary foreign worker program is vital to ensuring that the Canadian economy in general and certainly the Alberta economy can continue to prosper."
Edmonton Journal, Page B5, Tues July 10 2007
Byline: Jason Markusoff
Foreign worker woes; A federal program is providing desperately needed labour for Alberta employers -- but at a severe price for many workers
Mexican worker Angel Hernandez decided three decades ago he would someday come to Canada, after he saw a street dog gobble up a hamburger.
Hernandez was working in a popular French restaurant in Tijuana when a woman customer asked for a burger, even though it wasn't on the menu. Reluctantly, the French chef made her a thick patty with a bun, and the restaurant charged the young tourist an exorbitant price.
"And later she went outside and offered the special hamburger to the dog," said Hernandez -- now 50 years old, thin and weary-looking, sitting in an immigration agency in Calgary.
The woman in the restaurant told another staff member she was Canadian. And that small act stayed branded in his mind.
"Canadians are generous," he thought.
So last year when Hernandez, then an unemployed carpenter, saw a want ad in a newspaper looking for workers willing to come to Canada, he called the number listed.
It set off a chain of events he says saw him hit with a bill for $10,000 Cdn from the recruiting agency, moved unexpectedly from Vancouver to Calgary, underpaid for weeks of work and eventually left without a job in the most desperate labour market in the country.
Life as a temporary foreign worker in Canada hasn't worked out the way Hernandez imagined.
"It's a nightmare."
Canada Day celebrations and rituals focus on how the country has meant peace and prosperity for generations of immigrants, but another group of newcomers is increasingly -- and dramatically -- shaping the country.
The number of temporary foreign workers coming to the country is growing in leaps and bounds due to Western Canada's severe labour shortage.
While the program used to be about attracting highly skilled foreign nationals and seasonal agriculture workers, the last two years have witnessed dramatic growth in the area of low-skilled workers -- those people in Alberta who are now taking full-time jobs as dishwashers, construction workers, security guards or truck drivers.
According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the number of foreign workers not expected to have any training for their jobs increased by almost 80 per cent in the first nine months of 2006 compared to the same period in 2005.
Temporary workers are propelled here by a number of factors -- a web of international recruiting companies, increasingly accommodating government rules and businesses crying out for staff, especially those who won't quit on a whim.
Skilled or not, thousands of foreign workers are quietly altering the Alberta landscape with a fierce desire to make it in a rich, industrialized country.
But along with providing help to labour-hungry employers and putting money in workers' pockets, the foreign-worker program is creating confusion, headaches and sometimes misery for some, like Hernandez.
"Is there abuse of foreign workers?
I'm pretty sure there is," said Calgary immigration lawyer Peter Wong. "Is it universal? No, because they don't just stay with you. It's counterproductive to abuse the workers."
But when workers arrive in Canada, their work permits are tied to a specific employer. Other jobs are available, but fresh-off-the-plane workers like Hernandez often don't know where to ask.
"It's not easy because he doesn't know who to talk to," said Carolyn Christison, a partner in recruiting agency International Employment Solutions.
Immigration settlement agencies say confused and worried workers are showing up at their doors across the province in increasing numbers. At the Centre for Newcomers in the city's northeast, staff used to see a foreign worker come in every couple of weeks.
Now it's every week.
Two men, near tears, came in last week and said they had been fired after asking for promised wages at a construction company. Others come in with easier questions about winter clothing or how to change companies. The staff do their best to help, but because foreign workers are not immigrants, centres are not funded to deal with their concerns.
"This is eating up our agency time," said Carol Simpson, manager of employment services at the centre.
Both labour and immigration advocates say these newcomers are second-class workers compared to their Canadian counterparts -- who are not at risk of being punted from the country if they are fired or suddenly unable to work. Immigration centres say temporary foreign workers are much less likely to launch a complaint even if they are being mistreated by bosses, underpaid or not paid for all hours worked.
And increasingly, there are stories of workers being charged thousands of dollars in recruiting fees -- an illegal practice in Alberta. The government said 10 agencies in the province are now under investigation for charging illegal recruitment fees to workers, many of them foreign.
"To respond to a booming growing economy by just flinging the doors open without sufficient controls is another concern," said immigration lawyer Richard Kurland.
Lower-skill workers are supposed to be told their stay in Canada is temporary, but many carry quiet hopes -- at times encouraged by recruiters -- they will be able to stay.
"A lot of them are being promised things that realistically would not happen because Canada does not want unskilled workers here on a permanent basis," said Christison.
One goal of her company is to make sure low-skilled workers are told the truth about their circumstances and do not pay recruiting fees, she said. Employers instead pick up the tab.
Wong said perhaps a few hundred will qualify for the permanent residency track this year through the Provincial Nominee Program.
"Everyone wants to stay," said the Calgary immigration lawyer. "When they hit my office, we're careful to counsel (the low-skilled) workers that they shouldn't have that hope, and that the program is 24 months for them."
This fact is a huge disappointment for Tiburcio Ochoa, 48, a Salvadoran hired to work in a hog processing plant in Red Deer. While in Canada, he had to undergo emergency bypass surgery. Ochoa is now on disability insurance and looking for work with virtually no English skills.
But he's had a taste of life here and wants to remain.
"No one wants to be sick," Ochoa said through a translator, noting he will earn perhaps $5 a day back in San Salvador, which is rife with underemployed workers. He said he will never be able to support his family and pay for his medications.
"If I go back to my country, it would be to die."
In Calgary, Hernandez has found a new friend in Bernardino Morales, 27, from a rural area of Veracruz. The two Mexican workers have become united in anger over their working conditions in Canada.
The two men both arrived early this year and quit their jobs in May.
Speaking mostly through a translator at the Centre for Newcomers, Hernandez and Morales say they bought their own plane tickets. The pair both say they had agreements with an agency called peopleMovers, with offices in Mexico, England, Switzerland and Canada.
But what happened in Mexico before the men came here is in dispute.
Hernandez and Morales both say they were only given written contracts, in English, at the airport about a half-hour before their flight departed. The contracts stipulated they would have $10,000 Cdn deducted from their future paycheques for services provided by peopleMovers.
Hernandez took the terms because he was desperate to get work outside Mexico, "where unemployment is generations long."
But Richard McPhee, a spokesman for peopleMovers in Vancouver, said the Mexican office of the agency gave both men Spanish-language written contracts well in advance of their trip, and they agreed to the $10,000 fee for getting the work permits set up -- not for recruitment.
McPhee said the fee is not unreasonable for someone who is unemployed to have a chance to come to Canada, and the fee may also include services to bring the workers' families here. A few workers even end up getting permanent residency status, he said.
"All and all, if the worker comes up and he pays $10,000 and gets a really good job that he could never have at home, and he sends money home to his wife and kids, and then later gets immigrant status, he's probably thinking that's a very decent price," McPhee said.
"If we could lower it, I'm sure that we would."
The Alberta government said Friday that investigators are looking into peopleMovers for not having an employment agency licence in Alberta, and will also examine the $10,000 fee.
However, McPhee said the company is no longer attempting to collect the fee for the Mexican office since the men have quit. He also said the men were never supposed to be in Alberta, and his company does not operate in Alberta.
It appears the workers were moved by the construction company that hired them.
When Hernandez came to Canada, he thought he was going to be working in Vancouver. Ten days after arriving, he was told he would actually be going to Calgary to work. Although he travelled to Alberta by air, he said the briskness of the move made him feel "like cattle" being shipped.
At peopleMovers, McPhee said the work permit issued for the men only allowed them to work in B.C. and it was the construction company that moved them. "We don't know why those guys were in Alberta."
Regardless of the agreement on the agency fees, it was once they were in Canada where Hernandez and Morales had the most troubles.
When Hernandez saw the $10,000 fee on the contract back in Mexico, he says he did a quick calculation in his head. At a rate of $28 per hour, he decided he would be able to afford the $500 payments every paycheque and still send money back home.
What Hernandez says he didn't know was he would still have to pay taxes and Canada Pension Plan and employment insurance contributions. He also claims the employer didn't live up to the terms of the contract he signed in Mexico, and paid him only $22 an hour for his work in Canada.
Both men provided documents showing they were employed by a B.C. construction firm working in Alberta, along with documents showing they were supposed to be paid $28 but received $22. However, the company did not respond to repeated interview requests.
The two men also had various complaints about working conditions, including safety issues and cases of verbal harassment.
They are now living off savings, looking for a new employer that can accept foreign workers and pursuing their case with the provincial government.
"There are good and bad people," said Hernandez. "The common people help us."
Part of the problem is the sheer size of the increase in temporary foreign workers.
Look at the construction workers in Fort McMurray or downtown Calgary, the chambermaids in hotels in Banff, or the truck drivers roaring down Queen Elizabeth II Highway, and you're likely to see temporary foreign workers.
Many are happy. As other Calgarians kick back on Canada Day, temporary foreign worker Kenneth Fang, 28, will be making dinners at a Smitty's restaurant. Working his 1 to 9 p.m. shift, the young cook will earn $11.74 an hour -- about the price of a dinner-sized salad at his restaurant.
"The people are very friendly and they treat us right," the Filipino cook said of his first three months here. "Canada is peaceful. The pollution is not like our country. And I like the weather -- it's not too hot."
But as the number of temporary foreign workers continues to increase across Canada -- last year by about nine per cent -- workers' advocates say so will the number of unaddressed issues.
In Alberta, the stream of foreign workers is increasing at a torrential pace.
The latest figures from Citizenship and Immigration Canada have Alberta's numbers increasing by 46 per cent in the first nine months of 2006 compared to the same time period in 2005. In the first nine months of 2006, almost 11,000 temporary foreign workers entered the province -- moving towards the total of 20,000 traditional immigrants for the entire year.
Nobody expects anything but much higher growth for the next 18 months.
"These days, it's never just one. Everyone wants dozens of them," said Wong, whose law firm does the paperwork that allows employers to show they need foreign workers.
"The volumes are so high for employers of all types. We're talking cleaning companies, restaurants, manufacturing, oil and gas sector, construction. The list goes on and on."
Three years ago, the federal government changed its policies to make it easier for companies to bring in lower-skilled workers.
And in February, Ottawa announced those workers can now stay for up to two years
instead of one before returning home for a four-month time-out -- making it more attractive to employers to bring in low-skill workers.
At the same time, there are signals that both the federal and provincial governments -- which both have two departments with some responsibilities for temporary foreign workers -- are examining the treatment of workers.
"We are concerned about all allegations of abuse, mistreatment or wrongdoing. Temporary foreign workers are entitled to the same rights and protections as all Canadian workers," said Lesley Harmer, spokeswoman for Human Resources and Social Development Minister Monte Solberg.
"We are currently exploring ways to more closely monitor employers."
Alberta Employment, Immigration and Industry Minister Iris Evans said in a recent Calgary speech that she wants the barriers keeping temporary foreign workers from coming to Alberta to be further relaxed -- but stressed they shouldn't be brought in as "slave labour."
In the wake of the growth of the temporary foreign worker market, Service Alberta is reviewing its rules to see if its legislation works for recruiting agencies and protects employees.
Says Calgary immigration consultant Alan Davies: "There's a tremendous amount of good in the program. But there is some bad."
Attempting to work on that bad side is Edmonton labour lawyer Yessy Byl, who has been funded through the Alberta Federation of Labour to advocate for temporary foreign workers across the province.
Since being appointed in May, Byl has 80 files from workers who say they were mistreated or needed other help.
She is so busy, she is turning down media interviews, said AFL president Gil McGowan.
Especially on Canada Day, McGowan said, Canadians should be questioning the tenets of the foreign workers program.
"If these people are good enough to serve our coffee, build our houses and work on our construction sites, then they're good enough to stay as full citizens."
How many of our parents or great-grandparents would have been able to stay in Canada if they had to contend with the temporary foreign worker program, he asked. The program and its growth creates the potential for a large underclass of workers in Alberta, he said.
"People can come here, work hard and once we're done with them, we'll send them home," he said. "That's not the Canadian way."
Sociologist Michael Haan, who studies immigration at the University of Alberta, believes the increase in the number of temporary foreign workers is the outcome of flawed immigration policy.
Canada's system focuses so heavily on recruiting skilled immigrants it is no surprise that Alberta and Canada are short of lower-skilled workers, Haan said.
"Now, as sort of a Band-Aid fix to this problem, we are admitting lower-skilled workers to fill the gaps."
In general, labour advocates and immigration centres say there's a greater propensity for temporary foreign workers to be mistreated by employers because of the vulnerability that comes with their temporary status.
However, Wong said it's the unethical international recruiters bringing workers to Alberta that provincial and federal governments need to crack down on.
"There has to be something better than the Wild, Wild West."
As for Hernandez, he decided to talk to the media because he doesn't want other temporary foreign workers to go through the same thing as he and Morales have experienced.
And ultimately, Hernandez would like to stay in Canada -- not only because of the work opportunities -- but because he believes the people from all over the world makes this country good and strong.
"Canadians are not just one race," Hernandez said. "There are lots of things to learn."
Calgary Herald, Page B1, Sun July 1 2007
Byline: Kelly Cryderman
The Alberta Federation of Labour is creating a new Temporary Foreign Worker Advocate Office to help protect the basic human and workplace rights of vulnerable foreign workers in the province.
"We've already heard too many stories of exploitation, neglect and unfair treatment," says Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan. "We have to act and help protect people who come in good faith to work in this province."
The AFL is contracting with labour lawyer Yessy Byl to create the Advocate's Office to assist foreign workers when they encounter unfair treatment.
"We asked the provincial government to act on this. They have done too little so far and the number of problems has just ballooned," McGowan says. "We felt it our duty to act to help protect these working people."
McGowan says the lack of clear rules and aggressive policing has opened the door for unscrupulous employers and employment brokers to take advantage of workers coming to Alberta from other countries.
"The problems are as simple as getting employers to actually pay what they promised, right up to complex visa issues," McGowan says. "Many of these people don't speak English well, they don't know the country and they can't really defend themselves."
Byl, an award-winning Edmonton lawyer with more than 20 years experience helping union and non-union workers, has already been assisting a number of foreign temporary workers on her own time - mostly notably a group of Romanian welders and machinists.
"I've already seen disturbing examples of employers and brokers behaving badly - and governments looking the other way," Byl says. "Canada has a well-deserved good reputation around the world. But that reputation will be put at risk if we continue to allow workers coming here from other parts of the world to be treated in these ways."
In her role as Advocate, Byl will help temporary foreign workers file employment standards complaints and complaints about workplace health and safety. She will also help foreign workers understand their rights, deal with immigration issues, and navigate the provincial and federal bureaucracies.
McGowan says the AFL has enough money to keep the Advocate Office running as a pilot project for at least six months and possibly a year. After that, he says it will be time to reassess.
"This is work that government should be doing - but we'll do it in hopes that people like Iris Evans and Monte Solberg will eventually come around," says McGowan. "Our goals are twofold. First to help address the immediate needs of temporary foreign workers who are being treated unfairly and, second, to gather enough evidence to convince the federal and provincial governments to step in and reform the system."
McGowan reiterated the labour movement's position that the real solution to Alberta's tight labour market lies with better training for domestic workers; reform to the mainline immigration system and measures to better control the pace of oil sands development.
"By allowing the Temporary Foreign Worker program to grow exponentially without any of the necessary safeguards, our governments are essentially creating an underclass of workers who don't have the same rights and protections in the workplace as Canadian workers," he says.
"We feel strongly that if these people are good enough to build our oil sands projects, take care of our children or serve our coffee, then they're good enough to stay as citizens. That's the Canadian way. Stringing people along for years in precarious situations thousands of miles away from their families - that's not the Canadian way."
For More Information contact:
Gil McGowan, President at 780.218-9888 (cell)
The Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) responded to Citizenship and Immigration Minister Monte Solberg's announcement this morning that the federal government will be relaxing rules for the importing of temporary foreign workers by predicting it will lead to greater abuse of the system, more exploitation of foreign workers, and suppression of wages in Alberta.
"In Conservative-speak, 'streamlining' is shorthand for 'let employers do what they want'. I do not trust Harper's government to protect either the foreign workers coming to Canada or to ensure Canadian workers are not pushed aside," observes AFL President Gil McGowan.
"The plans to make it easier for employers to bring in temporary foreign workers will lead to more abuses of the system," says McGowan. "Employers will turn to foreign workers as an initial solution, rather than as a means of last resort."
Under current rules, each employer must prove an inability to find Canadian workers available to do the job before becoming eligible to import foreign workers. Under the proposed plan, regional lists of occupations will replace the burden of proof.
"The proposed plan removes the checks-and-balances. It opens the door to employers who want to bring in foreign workers just to keep wage rates down, or because Canadian workers might know their rights and demand they be respected."
McGowan states that today's announcement signals the government has given up on trying to improve training and education of Canadian workers to ensure needed skills are available. "Their one and only strategy for solving labour market difficulties is bring in more vulnerable workers."
McGowan expresses concern for how the rights of temporary foreign workers will be protected. "The government is developing a guide specifically for employers. What about a guide for workers coming to Canada telling them their rights?"
"The end result of this announcement is an up and a down. The up will be a dramatic increase in the number of vulnerable foreign workers at risk of exploitation. The down will be average wage levels in Alberta � for that is the primary motivation of importing temporary foreign workers.
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For more Information:
Gil McGowan, President Tel: (780) 483-3021 Cell: (780) 218-9888
For those who missed it, that was one of the rationales Solberg gave when he announced new measures aimed at making it easier for employers in Alberta and B.C. to bring temporary foreign workers into the country.
Solberg's comment was obviously meant as a joke - but the policy direction he outlined at his news conference in Edmonton is no laughing matter.
In fact, by lowering the bar for employers and making it easier for them to hire temporary foreign workers as a first choice, rather than a last resort, I'm afraid Solberg has set Canada in motion down a very dangerous road.
In particular, I'm worried the federal Conservatives are laying the groundwork for the creation of an underclass of workers in this country - a class of guest workers who won't have the same rights and protections in the workplace that Canadian workers take for granted.
I'm also worried that by making it almost laughably easy for employers to import foreign workers in an eye-popping 170 occupational categories, the Harper government is handing employers a big stick that, at least in some cases, will be used to demand concessions, displace Canadian workers and keep wages down.
Think I'mover-reacting? Consider the evidence.
Just three months ago, the manager of a nursing home in Kelowna laid off 70 personal care aides when they refused to accept major rollbacks to their wages and benefits. He is now attempting to fill the vacancies he created with temporary foreign workers -and thanks to Solberg's new rules, his job just got easier.
Similar stories are also coming out of the oil sands. I've received numerous calls from tradesmen who say their work has mysteriously dried up at the same time that their former employers have taken on increased numbers of temporary foreign workers.
So when the government says temporary workers will only be brought into the country "when there is no one available to do the job in Canada", a growing number of Alberta workers are saying that doesn't mesh with their personal experience.
None of this should have come as a surprise to Mr. Solberg and his Conservative colleagues.
The experience from other countries that have relied on "guest worker" programs to deal with real or perceived labour shortages is as extensive as it is sobering.
Countries as diverse as the United States, Germany, France, Switzerland, Kuwait and Singapore have all experimented with these programs: and they've all had to deal with the same negative effects.
Among other problems, guest worker programs have led to the establishment of ethnically-based "job ghettos"; they have sparked tension between foreign and domestic workers; and they have resulted in often rampant exploitation and of foreign workers by employers.
The big reason why programs like the one Solberg is expanding have proven to be so problematic is that they bring workers into the country on temporary basis as opposed to welcoming them as full-fledged immigrants and prospective citizens.
Landed immigrants and citizens have rights - perhaps most importantly, the right of mobility. If they don't like the way an employer is treating them or how much they're being paid, they can vote with their feet.
Workers brought into the country under the temporary foreign worker program, on the other hand, have no such rights. In a sense, they are hostages to the employers that sponsored them - and as such they are vulnerable exploitation.
Solberg says we shouldn't worry about abuse by employers because federal regulations promise that temporary foreign workers will be paid the "going Canadian rate" and because these workers will be protected by the same employment standards systems that cover Canadian workers.
But who exactly decides the "going rate"? And does it include the value of benefits enjoyed by Canadian workers?
Also, given that Solberg has put absolutely no enforcement mechanisms in place, how can we be sure that employers aren't ignoring the rules and paying temporary foreign workers less than the minimum wage - as evidence suggests they were doing recently with imported construction workers on a Vancouver railway project?
As for Solberg's reassurance that foreign workers will be protected by provincial employment standards systems: is he kidding? Here in Alberta, we have 55 employment standards officers to police the concerns of nearly two million workers.
Even more importantly, investigations are only launched when an employee lodges a formal complaint. Does Solberg really think that any temporary foreign worker - in Canada at the pleasure of their employers - would actually ever do that?
The big irony in all this is that the current push for increased foreign workers is coming from a Conservative government that purports to be a "defender of the market".
What the market in Alberta is telling employers today is that they need to increase wages to attract and retain employees. And it's also saying that businesses should be putting some projects on hold until prices come down.
Unfortunately, Solberg only has ears for business owners who want him to intervene in the labour market. In a sense, they've convinced the government to help them defy the economic laws of gravity.
As usual, the market is the wise, all-knowing force that can't be ignored - except of course when it's actually helping average working stiffs.
So in the end, what can be done to address Alberta's tight labour market? Contrary to those who support beefed-up guest workers programs, there is no silver bullet.
Part of the answer lies in better training for Canadians to meet the demand for skilled workers and increased wages to attract people from parts of the country with higher levels of unemployment.
Another part of the answer lies in slowing the pace of development - especially in the oil sands.
Finally, any real solution needs to include increases in real immigration, as opposed to ill-conceived guest worker programs: because if foreign workers are good enough to come here and serve us coffee or build our homes, they're good enough to stay as citizens.
By Gil McGowan, AFL President
In an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper this week, the Canadian Construction Association (CCA) makes a series of recommendations it claims will address the problem of "labour shortages" in the construction industry. The Alberta Federation of Labour responded to the letter today, saying it is full of self-interested rhetoric and glosses over the industry's poor track record of propping up domestic labour supply.
"The CCA letter is nothing but self-interested, self-serving spin to loosen rules for temporary foreign workers," says AFL President Gil McGowan. "The construction industry is looking to the government to solve a problem they themselves created through years of neglect of the Canadian labour pool."
CCA claims it has done all it can to encourage domestic workers to earn certification in the trades. This isn't so, says McGowan. The apprenticeship and training system in Canada is a mess, and construction employers are a central player in how it operates.
"In Alberta alone, there are 20,000 construction employers. Only 11,000 use apprentices. If 45% of construction companies won't hire a single apprentice, why should we let them import massive numbers of temporary workers?"
"According to official figures, less than one-half of Albertans who enter an apprenticeship program successfully complete the program and become certified. A 55% failure rate is an embarrassment," says McGowan.
McGowan points out that improving Alberta completion rates to 75% could add 4,000 new certified trades workers to the Alberta labour market each year. "That would go a long way to addressing the concerns about lack of workers. Multiply Alberta's 4000 with 9 other provinces, and there is a large pool of workers wanting to be tradespeople, but failed to accomplish it for some reason."
"We should be exploring those solutions before making knee-jerk policy changes to a complex area such as immigration.
McGowan notes the AFL supports more permanent immigration to Canada, wanting reforms that will encourage people from around the world to settle in Canada. "But bringing in temporary workers, who are very vulnerable to abuse and exploitation is no solution."
"Immigration policy should be about building a stronger society, not importing cheap labour to serve the short-term needs of employers," McGowan concludes.
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For More Information call:
Gil McGowan, AFL President @ (780) 218-9888 (cell)
The Alberta Federation of Labour reacted swiftly today to the release of a new Conference Board of Canada report saying that by 2025, Alberta will have an annual shortfall of 332,000 workers. The AFL challenged the assumptions made by the report, and argued the report is just more of the reckless thinking that is overheating Alberta's economy.
"Quite frankly, their numbers on the labour shortage are just ludicrous," says AFL President Gil McGowan. "They are based upon the assumption that current growth patterns will continue for 20 years, and there will be no net in-migration to Alberta from other provinces. Both assumptions are wrong. It is clearly designed to create the biggest shock possible."
"More importantly, its recommendation for the massive use of temporary foreign workers doesn't fix the problem," adds McGowan. "Current training and apprenticeship programs in Alberta are sorely lacking - something the Conference Board points out in its study."
McGowan points to the AFL's recent report, Beyond Chicken Little, which outlined that the core of Alberta's short term labour difficulties rests in its poor apprenticeship completion rates and inadequate investment in training. Less than half of students enrolled in apprenticeship complete their apprenticeship on time. This is due in large part to the fact that less than 55% of construction employers use apprentices - there is nowhere for apprentices to learn the trade.
Of more concern is that the Report is a perpetuation of short-term thinking that permeates Alberta decision-makers. "The status quo approach is 'take the money and run'. We are seeing no long term planning, no attempt to manage the pace of economic growth, or to prevent the oilsands from overheating our economy," observes McGowan. "It is irresponsible."
The AFL argues that we need to develop an economic development vision for Alberta, which takes into account the level of development that can be sustained over time without damaging the labour market or the environment.
"We can prevent labour shortages by pacing our growth and by fixing our flawed training systems," notes McGowan. "Panicked reports screaming about massive labour shortages do not make our economy more sustainable. Only changing our attitudes about economic development will."
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For more information call:
Gil McGowan, AFL President @ (780) 915-4599 (cell)