A pilot program that would fast-track the immigration process for trades workers began accepting applications Wednesday is a welcome change for the oilsands, says Oil Sands Developers Group Executive Director Ken Chapman.
However, Chapman says the program doesn't address challenges the natural resource sector has with immigration policies and as a result, the demand for blue-collar workers in Wood Buffalo and the oilsands will likely intensify in 2013.
The changes to the Temporary Foreign Workers program will reduce much of the red tape needed for trained foreign workers that specialize in 43 occupations. Some of these jobs include heavy-duty mechanics, ironworkers, millwrights, electrical work and welders — all jobs that are in short supply in Alberta.
Only 3,000 workers will be admitted through the program, a number Chapman says is problematic.
"That number alone is nowhere near to meeting the needs of Wood Buffalo or the oilsands, let alone other big projects in Canada," says Chapman. "We need skilled workers quickly and we're still competing with other markets with their own labour shortages."
While manufacturing has wavered in the last ten years, natural resources jobs have emerged as key industries for Canada's economic success.
British Columbia and Saskatchewan are both beginning to exploit their shale gas and oil deposits on a massive scale, while the territories, Ontario and Quebec have increased activities in their natural mineral and metal mining sector.
The program, titled the Federal Skilled Trades Program, gives preference to applicants with Canadian job offers and have a basic knowledge of English or French. At least two years of work experience in their trade is a bonus.
"Canadian employers have long been asking for ways to get the skilled tradespeople they need to meet demands in many industries across the country," said Immigration Minister Jason Kenney on Wednesday. "We've listened to their concerns and created this program in response."
In July, the Alberta Federation of Labour told Today they were skeptical of the program and were worried that it would allow fewer safeguards for foreign workers.
Nancy Furlong, secretary-treasurer of the AFL, pointed to a 2010 provincial report that found 74% of employers who used the Temporary Foreign Worker program had violated the Employment Standards Act regarding pay rates and record keeping.
"Canadians should get first crack at these jobs. But the Harper government is more interested in the bottom line of their friends in the non-union construction sector," she said. "The result is employers can use these workers in ways that Canadians might not tolerate,"
To meet the labour demands in northeastern Alberta, Chapman says more needs to be done to make the region more accommodating to the needs of foreign workers.
"The last census saw about 15% of the population here came from outside of Canada. That should be sufficient to have, at least on a visiting basis, immigration counselings so workers can deal with immigration issues here, not in Vancouver, Edmonton or Calgary," he said. "We need to give them more flexibility, make it easier to become citizens, easier for their families to come over if they're here long-term."
Chapman would also like to see language classes for promising skilled workers, rather than see them turned away due to a language barrier.
"If they're qualified and good on the tools but have problems in language, let's help them and not reject them," he said.
Fort McMurray Today, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013
Byline: Vincent McDermott
The recent meat recall at XL Foods Inc. in Brooks, Alberta is not wanting in superlatives.
It is one of the most massive meat recalls in Canadian history involving one of the country's largest beef packing plants that processes more than 4,000 head of cattle a day. Meat tainted with E. coli sickened a four-year-old boy and numerous others, resulting in the facility being shut down for a month and thousands of workers laid off.
Management of the beleaguered plant, owned by Brian and Lee Nilsson — brothers with a family tradition of ranching — has since been taken over by JBS USA, a leading animal protein processor in the United States and Australia.
Media coverage of this incident has focused primarily on public food safety. Justifiably so, considering that the meat processed by XL Foods is shipped to more than a dozen countries. But little has been said or heard about the invisible, voiceless workers — many of whom are temporary and foreign — toiling behind the walls of the plant. What are the occupational health and safety risks they are exposed to when handling pathogen-tainted meat that sickened so many?
A summary of non-compliances compiled by the Canada Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) at XL Foods noted multiple deficiencies in sanitation and maintenance: grease build-up and blood clots on the evisceration table; broken eye/handwash tap; large amounts of fat and meat build-up throughout; water pooling on the floors; a foul odour from a drain near the rendering room; condensation on the kill floor and in the offal hallway dripping onto boxed products; antimicrobial dripping onto rusty pipe and products; improper airflow at the processing floor; and bung bags in contact with a sink.
"This is dirty, dangerous work even in the best of circumstances," says Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour in Edmonton. "It is clear to us that there are both food safety problems and work safety problems at the Brooks packing plant and in many cases, the two are related."
Bob Jackson, regional executive-vice president for British Columbia with Public Service Alliance of Canada in Vancouver, says work conditions in meatpacking facilities and slaughterhouses are "almost indescribable" at times. "There has always been hazards involved in this line of work, just the environmental conditions that people are put into. You are dealing with heat, humidity, constant alerts around moving equipment and slippery floors," says Jackson, who was a former meat inspector.
Workers face a risk of direct exposure to pathogens by being in contact with contaminants that are aerosolized when handling carcasses stained with blood, feces and bodily fluids in a steamy environment with temperatures routinely reaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit with almost 100 per cent humidity, Jackson notes.
While workers are provided with personal protective equipment, they may not be utilized to the fullest extent, considering the discomfort of donning additional clothing, hard hats and goggles that can steam up under such conditions. "You can imagine what that might feel like in terms of real world protection," he adds, noting that it was quite routine to see workers not wearing the necessary protective gear.
"It is up to management in these facilities to ensure their employees are taking proper precautions and sometimes, the management is not totally on top of it," Jackson suggests.
One-third of the 2,200 employees at XL Foods comprise temporary foreign workers, although that number fluctuates. Finding workers has been a chronic problem in meatpacking facilities, particularly in isolated communities such as Brooks, a two-hour drive from Calgary.
"There are many days when Brooks simply did not have enough people on the line to maintain speed," McGowan notes. "And that has obvious implications for both food safety and workplace safety, because inexperienced workers tend to be more vulnerable to workplace accidents and they are also less likely to be familiar with food safety protocols."
He reports conversations with plant workers who say line speeds are too fast for them to keep up. "On average, they are dealing with about 260 carcasses every hour, which does not give them enough time to follow safety protocols, but also increase[s] the likelihood of injuries when it comes to the use of their knives and also puts what we would describe as undue stress on their bodies."
Through the years, technology and mechanization have shaped how work is being done in meatpacking facilities. When Jackson started working in the industry back in the '80s, he recalls handling up 40 to 50 carcasses every hour. While there is a lot more mechanization today to perform some of the functions, he says it is "an incredible speed requirement," citing poultry carcasses going by on an evisceration line at two or three birds a second.
"It becomes almost impossible to do a proper job, to do it safely, to make sure that your equipment is properly sanitized in between carcasses, that people are given opportunities to ensure their tools and equipment are in top shape," Jackson contends. Blunt knives, which require the use of greater force, also increases the likelihood of cuts should the knife slip. "If you are trying to incise lymph nodes with a knife for instance, you have to do it at a speed that will allow you to keep up," he adds. "Your brain is spinning at that speed trying to concentrate on doing any kind of a real function."
Line specialization also means that workers are performing the same movements hundreds of times for hours each day, putting them at an elevated risk of repetitive strain injuries, notes Dr. Amy Fitzgerald, assistant professor in the department of sociology, anthropology and criminology at the University of Windsor in Ontario.
While different estimates have been made on the speed of lines, which varies depending on the slaughterhouse, the most commonly-used estimates are those in larger facilities that process 400 head of cattle an hour. "Based on the estimates I have seen, the line speeds in North America are said to be double of what they are in Europe," Dr. Fitzgerald says.
"Line speeds are based on a very complex arrangement of factors," Jackson notes, citing considerations that include physical constraints of the plant, workers' profile and level of training, the type of livestock being processed and the condition of animals when they come into the facility.
Doug Powell, professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine's department of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, concurs that line speed is a factor in safety, "but not a concern if attention is being paid to worker and microbial safety."
Food safety management systems incorporate a series of hurdles in the processing system, which contributes to a cumulative decrease in the possibility and number of pathogens present in the food supply, notes information from the CFIA. Hot water and steam pasteurization, application of organic acids and evaluation of the safety and efficacy of antibacterial agents prior to application are among the measures used.
Should a line speed surpass a worker's capacity to effectively perform the requisite food safety functions, inspectors and veterinarians appointed by the agency have the authority to order an immediate cessation of production. "Federally-registered meatpacking and processing establishments must satisfy all requisite occupational health and safety requirements," says Ronald Davidson, government and media relations director with the Canadian Meat Council in Ottawa.
Line speed is intrinsically tied to the stunning of animals, which has a bearing on worker safety. Animals that are improperly stunned thrash about as they are being hoisted, presenting a significant risk to the sticker, who has to cut the throat of the beast weighing hundreds of pounds.
"There has been many incidents where animals from a wide variety of species are not stunned adequately," Jackson points out, adding that this was a frequent occurrence even before high line-speeds came into the picture. He describes scenarios in which animals that escape the stunning process end up on the kill floor alive and running around.
In the poultry business where stunning is largely mechanized through electrocution, "there are many incidents of animals not being stunned before going into the scalding process for instance, so there is the inhumane aspect as well as the safety aspect," Jackson notes.
However, that does not mean workers can let their guard down when handling a properly-stunned animal. Chris Fuller, general manager with Alleghany Meats in Monterey, Virginia cautions that even an immobile or unconscious animal is dangerous to approach as its nervous system is still reacting. "There is a lot of thrashing and a lot of movement still," Fuller describes. "You have to be very diligent in the way you approach them and making sure that you are keeping yourself safe when you do so."
Workers should watch out for signs of improper stunning by looking at the side of the animal to see if there is ribneck breathing. Blinking of the eyes is another indicator. In such cases, the animal needs to be restunned before it is killed. "That is proper procedure through the entire industry."
There is also the mental health aspect of working in places where animals hang upside down all day long. "These environments are incredibly difficult to work in," Jackson suggests.
But little research has been done in this area to offer insight on the mental repercussions on those who toil in these environments. "We really don't have systematic information about it," says Dr. Fitzgerald, who co-authored a study in 2009, examining the relationship between slaughterhouse employment levels and crime rates. Results were compared with other manufacturing industries with similar labour force composition, injury and illness rates, but engage in inanimate materials of production.
The study, Slaughterhouses and Increased Crime Rates, hypothesizes that the work of killing animals in an industrial process may have social and psychological consequences for workers over and above other characteristics of the work. It examines slaughterhouse facilities in 581 counties. The data, accessed through the United States Census Bureau's County Business Patterns, covers the period from 1994 to 2002.
Results indicate that the slaughterhouse employment variable has a significant positive effect on arrests for rape and other sex offences — effects not found in the comparison industries. An average-sized slaughterhouse, which employs 175 people, would be expected to increase the number of arrests by 2.24 and the report rate by 4.69. The expected arrest and report value in counties with 7,500 slaughterhouse employees are more than double the values where there are no slaughterhouse workers.
The study argues the results lend support to the argument that the industrial slaughterhouse is different in its effects from other industrial facilities. "Many of these offences are perpetrated against those with less power and we interpret this as evidence that the work done within slaughterhouses might spill over to violence against other less powerful groups, such as women and children."
An earlier study, which looks at 1,404 non-metropolitan counties in the United States from 1990 to 2000, arrived at similar conclusions. Counties with growth in meatpacking employment experienced faster growth in violent crime rates over the decade relative to counties without packing plants.
The psychological trauma of slaughterhouse work can be inflicted on workers in several ways: perpetration-induced traumatic stress (PITS), empathy suppression and violating the natural preference against killing, notes a study published in 2008 by Jennifer Dillard of Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C. While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is responsible for protecting workers in the United States from workplace hazards, "the lack of psychological regulation is due to the agency's prioritizing of more traditional, physical health issues and the 'perceived exigency' of these problems," she contends.
Perpetration-induced traumatic stress is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by being an active participant in causing trauma. Occupations that can put workers at risk of PITS include soldiers, executioners and police officers, where it is socially acceptable or even expected of them to cause trauma, including death. Symptoms of PITS include substance abuse, depression, increased paranoia and a sense of disintegration. Dillard notes in her study that substance abuse, which is prevalent among slaughterhouse workers, is evidence of the adverse psychological impact associated with the nature of their work.
The intensive, production-focused nature of factory farming and meatpacking facilities also requires workers in such workplaces to suppress their spontaneous empathy for animals. "By habitually violating one's natural preference against killing, the worker very likely is adversely psychologically impacted," Dillard concludes.
NOW AND THEN
As of October 29, XL Foods Inc. resumed operations under enhanced CFIA oversight and increased testing protocols. A statement from the CFIA notes that agency inspectors closely monitored plant operations, including the uploading and screening of animals, pre-operation inspections, slaughter and the cutting and processing of carcasses. It has also requested the company submit corrective action plans outlining how they will address these issues in the longer term and mitigate future risks.
But the situation was rather different back in early September during the onset of the investigation when the CFIA seemed to have difficulty obtaining information from the plant. That prompted federal agriculture minister Gerry Ritz's comments that agency inspectors could have been "more hard-nosed" when dealing with the plant responsible for the country's largest beef recall.
Information from the CFIA indicates that on September 6, the agency requested from XL Foods distribution information and testing results for all products produced on the days when the affected products were made. This was followed by a formal letter on September 7 stating that the company must respond by the following day. The information was provided in a series of submissions over two days on September 10.
"If we did not get what we needed or had requested, we would stop the production line," Jackson says of his time when meat inspectors were given clear direction on where their authorities lie. "What seems to have happened now is inspectors are not being given that direction to the point that they will feel uncomfortable, perhaps stopping the line or taking something out of production," he suggests.
McGowan observes that through the years, the meatpacking industry has been moving towards a policy of self-regulation. The shift started more than a decade ago when the CFIA, created in 1997, came under the responsibility of the agriculture ministry. While federal meat inspections are still being conducted in packing plants, he notes that there is increasing reliance on written reports furnished by quality control officers employed by the plant.
"It is very clear that cuts and deregulation have compromised both worker safety and food safety," McGowan says, stressing the need for more rigorous enforcement. "When it comes to safety, it means more inspectors, more boots on the ground, a greater willingness to shut down plants that are not in compliance. And it also means tougher prosecution."
In a statement issued in October of 2012, the Alberta Federation of Labour and the United Food and Commercial Workers union called for a public inquiry into the tainted meat debacle to address issues, such as the level of authority and mandate of CFIA employees, line speeds and if there is adequate training and whistleblower protection for workers.
"The results of Canada's system of self-regulation have already been criticized by American inspectors," the statement notes. "Over the last decade, several United States Department of Agriculture inspections have flagged problems with beef processing plants in Alberta."
As a sign of things to come, the federal government will stop inspecting provincially-licensed abattoirs in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba by 2014. Effect from December 31, 2013, British Columbia will take over from the CFIA the responsibility of meat inspection for provincially-licensed Class A and B slaughter facilities. The inspection of federally-licensed abattoirs and other issues of federal jurisdiction will remain under the CFIA.
The British Columbia ministries of Agriculture and Health held extensive consultations with the province's livestock and slaughter industries about the new meat inspection system for provincially licensed abattoirs. Inputs from these consultations, collated in the July of 2012 report, Summary of Industry Consultations of the BC Abattoir Inspection System Review, "reflects the observation that the B.C government will face challenges in implementing a meat inspection system that responds to the needs of all parties. This is especially true in an industry as diverse as B.C.'s meat processing industry," the report states.
Jackson concurs that the agriculture ministry's mandate to act in the interest of the agricultural sector can restrict its regulatory role of ensuring that food products produced by the very industry it is tasked to promote meets federal health standards. "It does raise the spectre of the potential for conflict," he suggests. "I don't recall there being such large incidents of E. coli, Listeriosis and these massive numbers of recalls on an annual basis for a whole wide variety of things."
E. coli, a bacteria that exists naturally in the intestines of cattle, poultry and other animals, can be transferred to the outer surface of meat during butchering. Some of the most common ways to be infected with E. coli are improper handling of raw ground meat, consumption of undercooked ground meat and contact with feces of cattle. "The bacteria that contaminates the meat can also infect individual workers who come into contact with it," Dr. Fitzgerald cautions.
ON THE GROUND
Fuller understands the challenges of ensuring smooth operation in a meatpacking plant and keeping workers safe at the same time. But the newly-constructed facility where he works makes his job a tad easier. "It is a very new plant. Everything from the handling facility down to the cutting and wrapping have kind of been thought through as best as possible."
He reveals that when the plant had just finished construction in February, they did not realize it would be handling bisons. "So when we got a customer who is talking about a consistent volume of bison coming through here, we invest in upgrading our handling facility to handle these bisons, which are different than cattle. They have a lot more energy."
The type of livestock being handled has an influence on the design of a facility. "The way our facility is set up, we have a way to move the animals without actually getting into the pen with them and I think that is really important," Fuller says. "Humane animal handing has a lot to do with stress so always keep them calm, not getting the animals riled up. That is very helpful in keeping everybody safe." Having more than one worker in a handling facility also allows them to watch each other's backs, he adds.
Keeping the environment sanitary is also key, especially on the kill floor where slips and trips are a real hazard. That means exercising diligence in spraying a floor down if blood is present, keeping the floor free from debris and liquids that could cause other hazards and removing remnants of fat or meat particles from the evisceration process. "You try to avoid having the opportunity to have a lot of bacteria build up in various areas where it will affect the workers or food safety," Fuller cautions. Frequent handwashing and keeping knives clean with sterilizer boxes where knives can be dipped are among the preventive measures, he adds.
Verbal communication is also important in alerting workers to hazards. Physical dangers abound in an environment where carcasses are constantly being moved across rail lines. "When you have a 600-pound carcass coming down the line, you got to be careful," Powell cautions.
Workers also need to be adequately trained to safely do their jobs, considering that meatpacking plants often employ a high proportion of migrant workers. "The industry has become quite adept at recruiting the most marginalized population that are quite vulnerable," Dr. Fitzgerald suggests.
McGowan agrees. "A lot of these temporary farm workers are very reluctant to speak out for themselves when it comes to any issue, especially safety issues. They want to stay in Canada and so they keep quiet, keep their heads down and continue working."
In a meatpacking facility in Colorado where Fuller used to work, he recalls working alongside employees from Mexico, some of whom spoke little English. To address the language barrier, he had a bilingual worker translate the standard operational procedure, which was written in English, into Spanish for reading by the Mexican workers as part of their training. A supervisor was then assigned to provide hands-on training. He also made sure that a worker who speaks only Spanish would not be placed to work alongside purely English speakers. "I have somebody who spoke Spanish around so they could communicate effectively with the whole group," he adds.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
The CFIA says the tainted meat incident at XL Foods cannot be attributed to a specific problem. However, there are a number of factors that, when considered collectively, may have contributed to the incident. These preliminary findings are already being considered by both the CFIA and the meat industry. The review has resulted in some modifications to previous practices, the Canadian Meat Council reports.
"A good place to start is slowing down line speeds," Dr. Fitzgerald suggests. "It has been ratcheted up to increase profits, but it really is causing more problems for workers and for meat safety." She suggests that the industry's high turnover rate has led to on-the-job training falling by the wayside.
For Powell, enforcement certainly has a part to play, but so does company culture. "What they need is a culture that values food safety and worker safety as much as it values profit."
Jackson is of the mind that an emphasis on controlling the environment as much as possible is needed. Sufficient resources should be made available to ensure that workers have proper breaks away from the lines and their mental capabilities are looked after. "I don't know if there have been studies done on the long-term effects of being exposed to these environments over a person's career. I'm sure it can't be healthy."
For that to take place, a fundamental change to the legal and regulatory frameworks needs to be effected. Although Dillard's study is framed within an American context, her recommendations on ways to improve the mental health of meatpacking plant workers nevertheless have resonance for Canada, which shipped $24 billion worth of meat products worldwide in 2010.
She recommends that a regulatory framework for psychological safety in slaughterhouses be developed under the mandate of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. "Just as OSHA inspectors can pinpoint workplaces that are hazardous to an employee's physical safety, OSHA inspectors could use their inspections to pinpoint workplaces that are hazardous to psychological safety," Dillard writes.
Workers' compensation can also serve as a legal scheme to redress the psychological harm associated with slaughterhouse work. Dillard argues that such a system would encourage employers to maintain psychologically healthy work environments and provide monetary relief to employees who suffer from ongoing, pervasive psychological trauma due to the violence of their workplace. "A typical slaughterhouse should be considered an ultrahazardous activity for psychological well-being, and employers should be liable for psychological damage caused by the work," Dillard contends.
In 1906, Upton Sinclair's novel, The Jungle, caused a public furor with its descriptions of morbid conditions in meatpacking houses in the Chicago stockyards during the early 20th century. The Federal Meat Inspection Act was created in the same year the novel was published.
"I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach," wrote Sinclair in reference to the unintended consequences of sparking an outcry against the sector. Hopefully, the XL Foods incident — which has hit many Canadians in the stomach — will also accidentally touch our hearts.
BEHIND THE WALLS
Meatpacking facilities are not accessible to members of the public, but it does not take much imagination to figure out how the ubiquitous use of sharp knives, handling animals and high line speeds converge to create an environment conducive for accidents and increased repetitive movements. A look at injury statistics can put that in perspective.
In 2010, Alberta's meat, hides and pelt products sub-sector had a disabling injury claim rate of 12.42 per 100 person-years worked — the highest of any manufacturing, processing and packaging sub-sectors, notes information from Occupational Injuries and Diseases in Alberta.
Hands and fingers are the most commonly injured body parts (27 per cent), followed by the back (13 per cent) and shoulders (11 per cent), notes information from Workplace Health and Safety Queensland in Australia.
OHS, January/February 2013 issue
Byline: Jean Lian, Editor of OHS Canada
Union leaders oppose bill that targets indigenous rights
Edmonton - The Alberta Federation of Labour is urging Canadians to be Idle No More in opposing Bill C-45.
On the morning of Friday, Dec. 21, union representatives marched with First Nations leaders and Albertans from all walks of life in Edmonton at an “Idle No More” rally against the Harper Government, which has pushed through a wide-ranging bill that undermines First Nations’ treaty rights.
“Environmentalists, unions, churches, charities, women's groups, and now First Nations - all have been affected by systematic dismantling of anyone who stands opposed to a right-wing agenda,” AFL president Gil McGowan said. “It is time to draw a line. It is time, in fact, for us all to be Idle No More.”
Bill C-45 brings changes to the Indian Act that will fast-track the process for aboriginals to surrender their reserve lands by lowering the threshold of community consent needed to hand over territory.
“The Alberta labour movement stands in solidarity with the struggles given voice by Idle No More. In our province, we extend the offer of solidarity and support to those who are speaking out for a better life, better health care, better education, better housing, and an end to racism and inequality.”
Similar rallies have been organized all over Canada, including a main mass rally in Ottawa. Idle No More has involved round-dances in shopping malls in Saskatchewan and Edmonton, roadblocks on Northern Alberta highways, and a high-profile hunger strike on Parliament Hill. Its pictures, and messages have gone viral on social media, including thousands of messages on twitter with the hashtag #idlenomore.
“Canadians are frustrated with a lack of consultation,” McGowan said. “And it’s inspiring to see so many people voicing their solidarity with a grassroots movement that brings together people from all walks of life. Over the past five years, the Harper government has voiced platitudes about First Nations, while cutting funding, abandoning claim negotiations, ignoring a crisis of missing and murdered aboriginal women, and undermining the environmental laws that protect the land and water resources that vital to many Indigenous communities. Canadians are saying that they will not allow their government to remain idle about these issues. ”
Gil McGowan, President, Alberta Federation of Labour at 780-218-9888 (cell)
Olav Rokne, AFL Communications Director at 780-289-6528 (cell) or via email email@example.com.
Letter in response to "Hooray for C-377"
In response to Lorne Gunter's column on Saturday, Dec. 15
Unions are some of the most democratic and accountable organizations in Canada. Union Members have a right to know how their dues are spent – and they do, through annual reports, conventions, and audits. It should be noted that union leadership is elected by the membership and accountable to that membership.
Bill C-377 isn't about transparency – Canadian unions are already transparent. C-377 is a political bill that will divert union resources to fulfilling arcane accounting measures, and will mean they are less able to represent workers and Canadians.
Public policy should be used to promote and enhance the public good, not as a tool to punish, intimidate or weaken individuals or groups that don't agree with the government. Unfortunately, that's exactly what Bill C-377 does.
Gil McGowan, President
Alberta Federation of Labour
Sent to the Edmonton Sun on Monday, Dec. 17 2012
Edmonton - The speedy passage of Bill C-377 is evidence that the legislation is not about transparency, but about punishing unions, according to labour activists.
The private members bill brought forward by Tory backbencher Russ Hiebert imposes expensive and onerous accounting requirements on unions, pension funds, and other professional organizations. It was rushed into the legislature for a third vote on Wednesday, Dec. 12.
“All Canadians should be concerned about this piece of legislation,” Alberta Federation of Labour president McGowan said. “Whether you’re union or non-union, all working Canadians benefit by having a strong labour movement around to fight for good wages, good benefits, quality public services, and safe workplaces. All Canadians, union or non-union, benefit when there’s someone there to stand up for the little guy and stand up to big corporations with deep pockets.”
Last week in parliament, debate on Bill C-377 continued beyond the normally-allotted one hour of debate time for a private members bill. The bill would have been stalled at second reading, but in an unusual move, MP Earl Dreeshen gave up the time that was allotted to his private-members bill to allow C-377 to proceed this week.
“The surprising haste with which Bill C-377 was passed is an indication that the Tories didn’t want to subject it to the type of scrutiny the matter deserved,” McGowan said. “We’ve known all along that this bill isn’t about transparency, it’s about silencing those who would dare to criticize the regressive, unCanadian agenda of the Harper government. If it was about transparency, they would have passed the bill in a transparent manner.”
Although Bill C-377 was opposed by all parties other than the Conservatives, the bill passed by a margin of 147 to 135 votes, with five Conservative MPs dissenting from their own party.
The Canada Revenue Agency has said that it will take until 2015 at the earliest to implement and to put into place accounting measures to collect and distribute the information required by the bill. According to independent estimates, administration of the bill will cost taxpayers upwards of $20-million dollars.
“The bill that they passed so hastily is badly written, poorly thought-out, and won’t survive a challenge in the courts,” McGowan said, noting that the bill has come under fire from the Canadian Bar Association, other professional organizations, pension fund managers and the Canadian privacy commissioner. The reporting requirements are far more onerous and expensive than charities or corporations. Not even governments are subjected to the same level of public reporting. “Public policy should be used to promote and enhance the public good, not as a tool to punish, harass, intimidate or weaken individuals or groups that don’t agree with the government. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Bill C-377 does. It’s an abuse of government power and has no place in a democratic country like Canada.”
McGowan added that when the bill goes to the Senate early in the New Year, he hopes the upper house will take a good look at the legislation and quash it.
“Although there is currently a 60-person Conservative majority in the 105-person senate, the body has in the past shown independence and provided Canadians with the ‘sober second thought’ that is seriously needed in this case,” McGowan said.
AFL President Gil McGowan will be available to take questions today from noon - 1:00 pm at the:
10512 – 122 Street
Canada T5N 1M6
or by phone at 780-218-9888-30-
Gil McGowan, President, Alberta Federation of Labour at 780-218-9888 (cell)
Olav Rokne, AFL Communications Director at 780-289-6528 (cell) or via email firstname.lastname@example.org.
EDMONTON - Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan will be available to speak to media this evening about the vote on Bill C-377.
The bill, which critics say will undermine the ability of unions to act as an effective voice for working people, is expected to reach third reading today. If it passes that vote, it could be ratified by the Senate early in 2013.
“This is a political bill. In the same way that they have cut funding to environmental groups and women’s groups, they are trying to weaken and muzzle a strong progressive voice,” Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said. “Bill C-377 violates the Charter rights of Canadians, including the right to privacy and the right to association. It’s a badly written bill, and will likely not survive a challenge in the courts.”
CONTACT: Gil McGowan, AFL president, 780-218-9888
Edmonton activists stage 'wait-in' at MPs office
Union activists in Edmonton participated in a national 'wait-in' to protest the punitive anti-worker Bill C-377 today.
The private members bill, which targets unions through punitive accounting regulations, is expected to be voted on this week, and could go to the senate by Thursday. In Edmonton, labour activists, including members of the Alberta Federation of Labour, camped out for several hours in the office of James Rajotte asking to speak to the Conservative MP.
"This is a political bill. In the same way that they have cut funding to environmental groups and women's groups, they are trying to weaken and muzzle a strong progressive voice," AFL president Gil McGowan said. "Labour groups all over Canada are visiting their Members of Parliament today to let them know that this bill is unacceptable."
The bill has been slammed by the Canadian Bar Association because provisions in the bill violate guarantees of freedom of expression and association, making it vulnerable to a court challenge under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
"Bill C-377 casts a wide net," McGowan said. "It's targeted at unions, but will also harm other organizations, including companies that do business with unions, legal associations, professional associations and charities. It's a complete mess."
Last Friday, amendments to the bill were being debated, but time ran out for debate. Under normal circumstances, the bill would have been put aside until the New Year. But backbencher Alberta MP Earl Dreeshan gave up the time that had been allotted to his private members bill so that C-377 could get an additional hour of debate. The bill goes for a second hour of debate today at 5:30 PM Central Time (3:30 MT).
"This is straight out of the Tea Party playbook: undermine unions and defund anyone who disagrees with them," McGowan said. "We're fighting this because Canada needs progressive voices who will stand up for health care, for seniors, for workers, and for the kind of society that Canadians are proud of."
Gil McGowan, President, Alberta Federation of Labour at 780-218-9888 (cell)
Olav Rokne, AFL Communications Director at 780-289-6528 (cell) or via email email@example.com
Hoping to quickly close Canada's growing labour gap of tradespeople, federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has unveiled a new plan that would quickly turn skilled foreign workers into permanent Canadian residents.
Kenney says the Skilled Trades Stream will help fill a serious labour shortage caused by Canada's growing natural resource economy, particularly in the oilsands and remote areas of the country. The program will only admit a maximum of 3,000 people to avoid backlogs. Applications will be accepted after Jan. 2, 2013.
"For too long, Canada's immigration system has not been open to these in-demand skilled workers," said Kenney. "These changes are long overdue and will help us move to a fast and flexible immigration system that works for Canada's economy."
Applicants will not have to meet the criteria of the points system that is already used for prospective immigrants or other skilled foreign workers.
Instead, the new program will consider applicants who have a job offer in Canada, have a basic proficiency in English or French, can prove they have experience in an in-demand trade. They must also show that their occupation qualifies as a trade under federal regulations.
The need for skilled tradespeople is most dire in Alberta, where the province estimates that it will need an additional 115,000 skilled tradesworkers over the next 10 years.
A spokesperson with the Alberta Federation of Labour said the program will help the province's economic growing pains. However, the AFL is still concerned about employment protection for low-skilled foreign workers already operating in Canada.
Fort McMurray Today, Tues Dec 11 2012
— Today staff
Restructuring and cuts at railway a warning to Canadians about risk of Bain-style management
Edmonton – Labour advocates are taking aim at vulture capitalism in the wake of massive job cuts at Canada’s second-largest railway.
On Wednesday, Dec. 5, management at Canadian Pacific announced that 4,500 jobs — more than a quarter of the workforce —will be laid off over the next four years, with 1,700 jobs to be cut before the end of 2012.
“These are quick-buck artists trying to squeeze obscene profits by gutting companies so they look profitable in the short term,” Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan said. “Their interests are different than the interests of Canadians. Strategic companies that are crucial to this country should not be pecked to pieces by vulture capitalists.”
A US-based hedge fund, Pershing Square Capital Management, took over Canadian Pacific earlier this year. Despite the fact that CP’s operational costs were in-line with the terrain and with industry standards, the hedge fund’s backers installed a new CEO, Hunter Harrison. Harrison joined the company in June with a plan to drastically cut costs in order to increase payments to their shareholders.
“This is a railway that operates in steep and varied terrain. I have concerns about the safety cutting costs on a railway that transports dangerous goods through the pristine Canadian Rockies,” McGowan said, adding that the safe and efficient operation of Canada’s national railways is crucial to several industries.
At present, the company has not released details of how the cuts will take place, or which workers will be affected. In Calgary, there are more than 500 workers employed by Canadian Pacific Rail, in Lethbridge, there are more than 160.
“Western Canadian farmers rely on having some competition between CN and CP,” McGowan said. “A shell of a company that has been gutted for the benefit of Wall Street is not in our interest.”
“These cuts will have an effect on many communities throughout Alberta and across Canada,” McGowan said. “These are good-paying, family-sustaining jobs, and the loss of these jobs will be felt across whole communities.”
Saskatchewan prosecutes four times as many cases
The province's workplace safety prosecution record is drawing fire, as new figures show signifi cantly fewer cases were taken to court last year than in Saskatchewan, with a workforce one-quarter the size of Alberta's.
Alberta wrapped up prosecutions on 11 workplace safety cases in 2010. Saskatchewan, meanwhile, has completed 47 cases since its fiscal year began nine months ago.
Connie Field, whose 28-year-old son Jake was electrocuted at a southern Alberta job site in 2006, said the gap between the two provinces is unacceptable.
"Justice is not being done," said Field, who remains frustrated that occupational charges weren't laid in her son's death despite a government probe pointing to safety problems.
"The only way they're going to change is to hit them hard, which is the pocketbook."
Throughout the past decade, Alberta consistently had one of the highest worker fatality rates in the country, spiking at 166 deaths three years ago. Yet a Herald investigation last year showed prosecutions of workplace safety violations were rare.
Alberta Justice declined to comment Thursday on the province's prosecution rate, deferring questions to Alberta Employment.
Alberta Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk said his workplace investigators forward cases to Crown lawyers for review but, as a politician, he can't press for charges, even when safety infractions are found.
Both Alberta and Saskatchewan rely on similar legal tests when determining whether to issue occupational safety charges, asking: Is the case in the public interest and is there a reasonable likelihood of conviction?
Asked whether he's worried about the perception that Alberta is reluctant to take employers who break safety laws to court, Lukaszuk said he's not fixated on the prosecution rate.
"Justice is not a numbers game," the employment minister said. "At the end of the day, I'm not in the business of generating numbers of prosecutions. I'm not in the business of convictions.
"I'm in the business of making
sure that every Albertan comes home safe at the end of the shift."
Alberta Employment statistics released Thursday show worker deaths last year were ahead of the previous year's pace. With two months left to count, 111 employees died in 2010, compared with 85 during the same stretch in 2009.
The province recently revamped its workplace safety enforcement system, hiring additional inspectors, posting company safety records online, and targeting high-risk industries for safety blitzes.
Field, however, contends these measures are "window dressing." If the province was serious about cracking down on safety breaches,
she believes more employers would face court action.
NDP MLA Rachel Notley and union leader Gil McGowan agree.
"It's clear that Alberta is still lagging behind other provinces in terms of prosecutions for workplace health and safety violations," said McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"The minister talks a tough game and he likes to say his government is willing to put its money where its mouth is, but these numbers suggest to me that's not happening."
Workplace safety prosecutions have ramped up in Saskatchewan since the province introduced a zero-tolerance policy for violations involving inadequate fall protection at construction sites.
Glennis Bihun, executive director of Saskatchewan's occupational health and safety division, said roughly three-quarters of the 60 prosecutions launched in 2010-11 stem from its zero-tolerance approach.
"In those occasions where the risk to life is extremely high or in those infrequent occasions where there isn't a desire for compliance, there needs to be a penalty or a consequence," Bihun said.
In Alberta, occupational safety charges are rarely laid unless a worker is seriously injured or killed. The province's Employment Department notes Saskatchewan has a significantly higher worker injury frequency than Alberta. However, several safety experts contend comparing injury rates is difficult because tracking systems often vary widely from province to province.
Last month, Alberta's employment minister expressed disgust at the results of an inspection blitz of Alberta construction sites.
For six weeks in October and November, provincial workplace officers visited 73 commercial construction sites involving 146 employers in Calgary, Edmonton and other parts of Alberta.
In all, 214 safety violations were discovered. Top hazards involved working at heights without adequate fall protection and failing to properly safeguard against threats, such as openings in floors.
Notley of the NDP argues Alberta should follow Saskatchewan's model and target violations before employees are maimed. "What Alberta has to do is . . . prosecute any violation which undermines the culture of safety.
"Those seemingly less significant violations are as integral to the accidents that ultimately happen. All violations need to be taken seriously," said Notley.
Calgary Herald, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012
Byline: Renata D'aliesio, Calgary Herald