A union leader says the province has quietly lifted a stop work order imposed on an oilsands tank construction site in northern Alberta after two workers died.
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, says officials in the Immigration Department told him about the development Thursday.
In a letter to Immigration Minister Iris Evans, McGowan says he believed the stop-work order would remain in place until the end of an investigation into what happened at the site near Fort McMurray.
McGowan wants to know whether the review into the deaths and a second non-fatal collapse three weeks later has been completed.
He has also written a letter to Justice Minister Ron Stevens asking for a public fatality inquiry into the deaths.
The Chinese men were working on the multibillion-dollar Horizon oilsands project belonging to Canadian Natural Resources (TSX:CNQ).
The Edmonton Sun, Page 33, Sat July 14 2007
Help may soon be on the way for the province's growing energy sector in the form of a collaborative approach addressing labour shortages.
A Workforce Strategy for Alberta's Energy Sector, developed by 37 energy associations, labour organizations and employers developed, was announced Tuesday. It contains 46 new actions to inform, attract and develop the workforce.
But while government and industry is heralding this strategy, labour unions are disappointed with the "business as usual" plan.
Alberta obviously needs an answer to the overall high demand for skilled and unskilled workers, according to Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"Yet we see nothing new in this document, nothing innovative. It's really business as usual after you get through the PR and promises to study various issues," said McGowan in a statement.
Describing the strategy as lacking in substance, he added it includes "vague intentions and promises."
The strategy was kick-started by the Alberta departments of Energy and Employment, Immigration and Industry, the Alberta Chamber of Resources and the Construction Owners Association of Alberta.
Brian Maynard, vice president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said 400,000 new jobs will be created in the province between now and 2015 but it leaves the province still 100,000 workers short.
Between 150,000 and 200,000 of the jobs will be in the oil and gas industry, he said.
''This is the biggest issue we face,'' he said. ''We can't do this without people.''
A highlight of the strategy includes a one-stop website about entering and working in the energy sector and living in Alberta to attract out-of-province workers, he said.
The purpose of the program is to develop ways to attract skilled workers to the whole industry through, for example, education and immigration, said Cheryl Knight, executive director and CEO of the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada.
''It's more proactive and long-term,'' she said.
Energy Minister Mel Knight called the program ''a road map'' to ensure Alberta's energy sector continues to thrive and contribute to the province's economy.
''All of the pieces that have been brought together are certainly very valuable and can work in concert to get us to a goal,'' Knight said.
Fort McMurray Today, Page A1, Wed July 11 2007
Alberta faces a potentially crippling shortage of workers that could stall development of multi-billion-dollar oilsands projects and the economy at large, government and industry officials said Tuesday.
Government forecasts say Alberta needs 400,000 new workers by 2015. But that analysis also shows 100,000 of those jobs won't be filled unless new strategies are engaged to recruit and train people from every possible demographic.
Brian Maynard, a vice-president with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, says the energy industry alone faces a shortfall of 40,000 workers over the next eight years.
Failure to find the right number of workers could jeopardize billions in investment planned for the booming energy sector. Energy contributes about a third, more than $59 billion annually, to Alberta's gross domestic product.
Maynard said Alberta can't afford to ignore the brewing demographic storm. "There's just too much at stake," he said. "This is one of the biggest issues our industry faces."
Maynard was on hand for the unveiling of the Alberta government's workforce strategy for the oil and gas industry, a series of training and education initiatives designed to increase the labour pool by attracting more women, young people and aboriginals to the workforce.
Women in particular make up about three per cent of an oil and gas workforce that is typically Caucasian, older than 45 -- and male.
"The 100,000 (workers) come in pieces," said Energy Minister Mel Knight.
The energy industry has 150,00 direct employees and almost double that when indirect employment is counted.
By 2015 the oilpatch faces critical shortages of skilled trades ranging from process engineers to quality control supervisors. The province defines a critical shortage as any sector with less than three per cent unemployment.
The government's 10-year strategy was hashed out with the help of 37 energy associations, labour organizations and employers and aims to broaden the workforce with a suite of programs including training, education and attracting more people to move to Alberta from within Canada as well as overseas.
"The important thing to remember is that this is an industry led approach," said Lloyd Dick, speaking on behalf of the Alberta Chamber of Resources and Construction Owners Association of Alberta.
In addition, the program aims to recruit more young people. Youth unemployment is roughly double the province's official 3.8 per cent rate and energy is held with a certain amount of disdain among young people who see it as old-fashioned
"To attract the labour force of tomorrow we have to promote the petroleum industry as an employer of choice," said Cheryl Knight, executive director of the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada.
But Gil McGowan, who heads the Alberta Federation of Labour, said his group is "suspicious" of government efforts to bring more workers to Alberta at a time when dissatisfaction with working conditions is running high.
Last week, five construction unions held strike votes in Edmonton, Calgary and Fort McMurray for the first time in more than 30 years, voicing displeasure with working conditions on major oilsands projects.
If the votes are positive, construction work in northeast Alberta could come to a halt before the end of the month.
McGowan accused the government of trying to circumvent Alberta's labour movement by bringing in temporary foreign workers.
He said employers are partly to blame for failing to attract and train new workers during the downturn. Instead many potential new recruits were turned away and took up careers in more "stable" sectors of the economy.
"What we're saying is that there has to be a better way to develop the workforce of the future so we're better ready for when the boom comes," he said. "Throwing money at the problem is not enough."
According to Iris Evans, Alberta's minister of Employment, Immigration and Industry, her department received about 8,000 applications for foreign workers, a four-fold increase from 2,000 applications at this time last year.
But CAPP's Maynard countered that hiring foreigners is an expensive last resort. Most companies would prefer to hire Canadians first, he added.
Skilled oil workers are as scarce as steel and equipment around the globe. The oil industry would still be hard-pressed to attract all the workers it needs even if immigration levels were dramatically increased, he noted.
"We need them in every area . . . and it's going to fall to immigration to fill the gap," he said. "There's nobody that's going to be left aside. Usually governments have had to deal with unemployment, now they're having to deal with full employment and that's a complete reversal from what they're used to."
Calgary Herald, Page A1, Wed July 11 2007
Byline: Shaun Polczer
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
Labour fears foreign workers exploited; Temporary employees outnumbered immigrants to Alberta in 2006
EDMONTON - Alberta has become one of the first provinces to bring in more people as temporary foreign workers than through Canada's mainline immigration system, the Alberta Federation of Labour says.
The AFL contends that's bad because the province is relying more and more on workers who are vulnerable to exploitation.
The provincial government says it's good because temporary foreign workers are helping to ease severe labour shortage created by the economic boom.
The latest federal figures show Alberta had 22,392 temporary foreign workers as of Dec. 1, 2006. That's 1,675 more people than the number of immigrants granted permanent residency in Alberta last year.
Newfoundland was the only other province to accept more temporary foreign workers than permanent immigrants.
"We're not opposed to people coming from other countries to work in Canada," AFL president Gil McGowan said Friday. "But if they're going to come here, they should have the hope of becoming citizens."
These workers are less likely to stand up for themselves, so some employers take advantage of them, McGowan said.
He said the AFL has heard from dozens of foreign workers who complain employers make wrongful pay deductions, fail to pay overtime and break promises to provide training.
The province should deal with its labour shortage by providing better training for Canadian workers and slowing the pace of oilsands development, McGowan said. He said the immigration system also needs reform.
Lorelei Fiset-Cassidy, speaking for Alberta Employment, Immigration and Industry, said the temporary foreign-worker program is only for employers who can't find workers in the existing workforce.
"We see help-wanted ads in nearly every storefront and in newspapers across the province," Fiset-Cassidy said. "So we know there is a huge demand that can't be filled with the existing labour force."
She accused McGowan of painting an unfair picture of employers. She said many employers are offering language training as well as housing. "Retention is something employers are very concerned about. Obviously, it's in their interest to treat temporary foreign workers fairly."
Companies increasingly use a provincial nominee program to help foreign workers become citizens, she said. Last year nearly 1,000 workers were sponsored, Fiset-Cassidy said. "We're looking to more than double that this year."
Edmonton Journal, Page B5, Sat July 7 2007
Byline: Duncan Thorne
Keystone pipeline to the United States by 35 per cent, citing strong support from Canadian oilsands producers.
The pipeline will be capable of carrying 590,000 barrels per day (bpd) to Cushing, Okla., when subsequent expansion phases come online in 2010, up about 150,000 bpd.
TransCanada said the expansion was driven by the signing of binding contracts for 495,000 bpd of the total available capacity at an average term of 18 years.
"This commitment from shippers clearly confirms the value of Keystone as a cost-competitive way to link growing oilsands supply to U.S. energy markets," said Trans-Canada CEO Hal Kvisle.
"With this support, we expect to move to the next phase of the project, expanding the pipeline to the U.S. Gulf Coast."
A public hearing to construct the Canadian facilities for the pipeline concluded June 21. TransCanada said it has also submitted applications for similar U.S. federal and state approvals.
If it gets the go-ahead, construction of the 2,969-kilometre pipeline is expected to begin in early 2008.
TransCanada spokeswoman Shela Shapiro declined to provide cost numbers for the latest expansion beyond the previous $2.8 billion US estimates for the pipeline and Cushing extension.
"We continue to refine the estimated cost," she said.
Keystone is just the latest in a series of pipeline proposals designed to take up Alberta's growing oilsands output.
Last Thursday, Enbridge Inc. filed commercial terms with the national regulator for the $2-billion Canadian segment of its proposed Alberta Clipper heavy oil pipeline.
Enbridge is also filing with American regulators to the build the $1-billion U.S. portion of the project.
Alberta Clipper will see the construction of 1,600 kilometres of new 91-centimetre diameter pipe from Hardisty, Alberta, to Superior, Wis., where it will trickle down feeder pipes to the Gulf Coast.
Initial capacity of 450,000 bpd will eventually top 800,000 bpd after it comes into service in mid-2010.
On Friday, Enbridge also filed for regulatory approval to build a $300-million extension from Hardisty to Edmonton and expand the capacity of the line to 880,000 bpd to match Alberta Clipper.
The announcements come as Canadian oilsands producers begin to dramatically ramp up output.
Last week, the Canadian Association of Canadian Petroleum Producers (CAPP) said it expects oil production to average 4.6 million to 5.3 million bpd by 2020 due in part to the explosive growth in the oilsands.
Over the same period, total U.S. refinery demand for Alberta oil is projected to increase from about 1.6 million bpd to almost 3.1 million bpd in the same period, or nearly 100 per cent.
Demand for heavy oil is by far the largest of the crude types, necessitating the need for new pipes, the association said in its report.
Greg Stringham, the association's vice-president of markets and fiscal policy agreed the Keystone expansion comes sooner than even he expected but suggested additional capacity will be needed to meet even the base case forecast.
"Even this announcement won't be enough to meet our moderate growth case by 2020," he said. "We may even need more after 2012."
But Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said the province needs more refineries and upgraders -- not new pipes.
He testified as an intervenor against Keystone during the public hearing that closed last month.
His group is concerned there won't be enough bitumen left over to support a domestic processing industry and urged the federal and provincial governments to take steps to encourage value-added processing and jobs at home.
"This (TransCanada's expansion) should be setting off alarm bells with the policy makers in Edmonton," he said.
"We'd rather see half a dozen state-of-the-art upgraders and refineries than five or six new pipelines."
TransCanada shares fell eight cents in Toronto, to close at $36.56.
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