Temporary foreign workers are back in the news. On Labour Day Monday, of all days, Kathy Tomlinson of CBC News revealed safety concerns at a Husky Sunrise plant near the oilsands of Fort McMurrray, Alberta.
Temporary foreign workers ill-trained and with poor English language skills, caused several hazardous situations for themselves and their fellow workers. These 344 foreigners were hired by Husky’s contractor Saipem, despite lack of certification and failed attempts at certification. When the on-site supervisor repeatedly lodged formal complaints to Saipem outlining the many incidents, he was asked to stop reporting. Saipem’s preference was to maintain and even promote these workers to non-union supervisory or managerial roles. All this while many capable Canadian tradesmen and iron workers submitted ample resumes, to no avail.
If all this sounds familiar, that’s because a year ago, the same two companies were found to have laid off 300 Canadian contractors at the very same plant and hired, within a few days, 300 temporary foreign workers with questionable safety operation knowledge and skills.
Not only does Saipem’s repeated actions contravene the very intent of the temporary foreign workers program, but adds considerable risk to the Husky plant’s operations*.
The Harper government adjusted the parameters of the temporary foreign workers’ program earlier this year, to stem the flow of foreign workers in low-wage jobs and retail sectors. They did, however, maintain special allowances for the oilsands sector, as it suffers from a lack of available skilled labour, and rising capital and operating costs. A confidential memo unearthed by Greg Weston of the CBC, in which the federal government warns of high labour costs in the Alberta oilsands, reveals the extent of its concerns. The memo further warns that foreign investments, to the tune of $650 billion, will be needed over the next decade to continue development of the oilsands, or the economic feasibility of the entire sector would be in jeopardy.
How many other projects are staring at the same economic formula? A declining Brent price in an era of oil production excess, only magnifies the issue. Especially so for a land-locked Alberta unable to negotiate the construction of unwelcome pipelines.
Shareholders, previously drunk on oilsands dividends, are demanding more transparency on oilsands projects, while First Nations – supported by the recent precedent-setting BC land claim ruling – will be in courts demanding land rights compensation or a stop to any pipeline construction on their lands.
Labour Cost Control
Prior to the 2014 announcement regarding changes to the temporary foreign workers’ program, an Ernst and Young publication on the top 10 risks and opportunities for Canadian Oilsands in 2012-13, identified labour as a significant threat. Referencing the temporary foreign workers’ program, E & Y encouraged oilsands producers to “think outside the box and look for new ways of doing things on a global basis. Successful companies will be those that find new ways of sourcing talent.”
Trumpeting those creative, new ways, earlier this year, at the Imperial Oil’s Kearns Lake site, sub-contractor Pacer Corporation laid off 65 unionized iron workers, without notice. Within a few days, it then hired 65 non-unionized temporary foreign workers from Croatia at half the union wage.
Alberta Labour Federation immediately raised its concerns to the federal government, and an investigation was launched. It should be noted that after much push back, Pacer eventually let those Croatians go, but did not rehire the original unionized 64 iron workers. Instead, they hired cheaper non-union Canadian contractors.
Labour cost control, achieved.
Inter-Company Transfers (ICT)
Most readers are less familiar with the inter-company transfer program, developed by the Canadian federal government in the 1970’s to provide global companies with a Canadian branch, a means to transfer experienced employees from their global offices to their new offices in Canada. And because an LMO is not required for inter-company transfers, today, companies increasingly use this classification to circumvent the negative publicity around the temporary foreign worker program, to the tune of 50,000 ICT foreign workers in 2012. Double that of ICT applications in 2008.
An initial work permit for any ICT senior manager or executive is valid for up to 7 years, and can be extended repeatedly for a two-year period. In the case of specialized knowledge foreign workers, which is likely what an oilsands producer intent on bringing in tradesmen uses, the work permit is valid for four years, with possible extensions.
Because the ICT program is lesser known, the federal government is under no pressure to make amendments.
Back to the Husky Sunrise plant. Let me paint a picture for you, combining facts and supposition: after getting its knuckles tapped last year, Saipem used the temporary foreign workers program to bring in a couple of hundred non Canadian-standard certified foreign trade workers, with a promise to have them all certified within the year. In the meantime they worked on site – until one of these man almost blew up a tanker when he attempted to use a torch to defrost it. Most of these foreign workers had failed the tradesmen’ certification process, but were kept on nonetheless.
Saipem then promoted these foreign workers to safer, more hands-off roles, in a supervisory capacity, but at a much lower wage than what it would have cost Saipem to promote or hire a Canadian non-unionized supervisor or manager. What do you know? Lower labour costs. Multiply that scenario by a few dozen. How many supervisors on each shift? How many shifts per day?
And for those non-certified foreign workers that do suffer injuries, there is always the WCB. Creative corporations might be able to remove those injured labourers off their own books.
Labour cost reductions. Again.
I suspect we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of unsafe, non-certified foreign worker use in the oilsand industry. And despite claims of robust safeguards, by approving the countless LMO’s for foreign workers, the federal government is complicit in diminishing the security of other the labourers working on the oilsands projects.
Now, imagine another scenario where a responsible, progressive-thinking federal goverment partners with the oilsands industry to develop a safe, sustainable, peerless, green extraction, production and distribution process that reduces its carbon footprint.
Many are still hoping for that Canada of tomorrow.
*Update, Sept. 5, 2014: With more workers coming forward complaining of unsafe conditions at Husky Sunrise due to the uncertified temporary foreign workers, the Alberta Government formally launched two investigations on hiring practices and use of TFWs.