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Temporary Labour or Disposable Workers?

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Issue: 48 Section: Labour Geography: West Alberta, Fort McMurray Topics: labour, migration, tar sands

November 24, 2007

Temporary Labour or Disposable Workers?

Foreign labourers are brought to the tar sands, but are easily sent home

by Tim Murphy

Workers’ quarters in a camp near Fort McMurray. Temporary foreign workers are often at the mercy of their employers. Photo: Dru Oja Jay

"So you believe in the free market?"

"Well, it's not so much that I believe in the free market, it's that I demand logical consistency out of those who demand the free market," answers Jason Foster, director of Policy Analysis for the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL).

According to Foster, wages in the Albertan oil industry have not been allowed to follow the basic laws of supply and demand. Companies have used various tactics to prevent the rise of wages. One such tactic, the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, is of special concern to the AFL.

Although he acknowledges the existence of a labour crunch in places like Calgary and Fort McMurray, Foster remains critical both of the Alberta Government and of the oil companies, citing their inconsistencies in dealing with the problem. The AFL has gone as far as to accuse the government of causing the current shortages by its refusal to pace development in the tar sands. The glut of new construction, they claim, has led to the current scarcity of skilled tradespeople and the subsequent push to hire foreign workers.

"There are presently more TFWs [Temporary Foreign Workers] entering the province each year than there are permanent immigrants," says Foster. "The entire strategy of the government has shifted away from bringing people to Alberta to allow them to have the full rights of citizenship and become members of our communities.

"They've now shifted it to say we want a revolving door of cattle to do a bunch of work and ship them back home again. They [the oil companies] have found that if you increase supply by bringing in a pool of workers from outside the country who are prepared to work for less and without benefits--you artificially suppress wages."

The numbers seem to support Foster's claims of an influx of foreign workers in Alberta's oil patch. According to Murray Gross, a spokesperson for Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC), in 2006, Citizenship and Immigration Canada issued a total of 15,172 new temporary work permits for Alberta, bringing the total number of temporary foreign workers in the province to 22,392. By comparison, in 2005, 15,815 were working in Alberta.

Don MacNeil from the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union is equally critical of the government-run program.

"It's a litany of horror stories that almost smack of servitude. They [the workers] are artificially subdued because the threat of being sent back is always hanging over their heads and so the complaints part of the process is largely silent."

The permit that allows foreigners to work in Canada has their employer's name on it. Although they are theoretically entitled to the same employment and labour rights as Canadian workers, they don't have the same freedom to act on those rights, since they can be sent home at any time, without question and at the discretion of the employer.

In response, the AFL has hired a lawyer to act as TFW advocate, taking on cases for the workers to help them get their rights.

"It's a totally horrendous situation. We need them desperately, but once they come here, they have no rights," says Yessy Byl, TFW Advocate.

"I've been pretty busy, it's hard to pinpoint numbers, but I've got over 100 case files. I talk to even more people to give advice. I work with all foreign workers in Alberta, from fast food to the trades. Maybe a third of these are in the oil patch," says Byl.

Yessi mentions two identifiable themes to the types of cases she deals with. The first is that of labour brokers. The second is that of inadequate unemployment provisions.

TFWs usually get here by dealing with a broker in their home country. The broker offers promises of a job or even immigration status in exchange for a brokerage fee (reportedly between $500 and $5000). This practice is illegal in Alberta, but it is difficult to stop, since most of it is done from elsewhere, in places like California, or in the worker's country of origin.

"The brokers charge outrageous fees, contrary to Alberta law. They mislead people as to what's covered and what isn't. They understate the cost of living. They bring them to Canada and dump them. Often, the job doesn't even exist anymore," adds Byl.

Employers interested in hiring TFWs must first apply for a Labour Market Opinion, which is basically a survey of the Canadian workforce designed to determine whether or not the job requirements can be filled locally and whether or not there is a real need to hire outside of Canada. In 2004, the governments of Canada and Alberta signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to help employers who need to hire temporary foreign workers to fill labour shortages on large construction projects including in the tar sands. The MOU also allows employers to enter into an agreement-in-principle with HRSDC that will facilitate and speed up the processing of Labour Market Opinion applications.

A "Regional Occupations under Pressures List" was established for Alberta, which speeds up the application process for hiring temporary foreign workers in certain occupations. The lengthy list includes many occupations that would be required for tar sands projects, such as construction managers, electricians and heavy-duty equipment mechanics, but also food and beverage servers, cashiers and even funeral directors and embalmers.

"They [the companies] came up with a pretty interesting method of justifying the access to the program. They would have job fairs, in my view very poorly advertised, in weird timing and weird locations and nobody would come. That's one of the major hoops that they would dance through," says MacNeil.

Temporary Foreign Workers are guaranteed a set number of work days as stipulated under the terms of their work permits. If a worker loses his job, or leaves it voluntarily, he may choose to seek employment elsewhere. According to Byl, this is not always as straightforward as it may seem.

"If you're not working, it's a minimum of four to five months wait, up to a maximum of eight months, to go through the process of obtaining new paperwork, including a new Labour Market Opinion. The lack of unemployment provisions drives people underground.

"Without a job and without employment insurance, workers can't very well just sit around until they are able to legally work again. Instead, they work underground for less pay, or they go home."

When an employer brings in a worker, it's also the employer's responsibility to find the employee housing. Foster claims that this too is done with minimal concern or respect for the well-being of the workers. He cites an example of 12 Indo-Italians brought in by a trucking company who were put up in a three-bedroom bungalow and charged $500 per month in rent.

"If you are an employer and you can hire a worker where you can get half of the wages back on rent, that's a bonus...They find these ways to nickle and dime them. There are guys that come here work here for six months, then go home without having earned a penny."

I ask Foster whether the TFWs encounter racism and whether they are successful at integrating into their new communities.

"They're not and that's by the design of the employers," he answers.

Foster details how the TFW are picked up by a representative of the employer, driven to a camp exclusively for TFW and that's the last that anyone sees of them. Immigrant service agencies, he says, are forbidden under their funding arrangements with the government to serve TFWs. So if they come looking for language classes or information on how to set up a bank account, the agencies have to turn them away or risk losing their funding.

I ask him about credentials. He explains that workers have six months to pass an exam, part of which is practical, the other part being written. Foster says that they usually fail the written part and excel at the practical component. Since the TFWs can work during the six months leading up to their test, employers generally do not concern themselves with helping them pass the test, since they can easily replace them with a new batch of workers.

"They don't want to invest in training, they don't want to increase their wages. It really is a case of disposable workers."

All involved agree that there exists a wide range in the ways that companies treat their workers, and that not all companies resort to using TFWs. The basic existence of a labour shortage is another point of general agreement. However, the extent and the cause of the shortage remains up for debate, as does its use as a justification for the hiring of foreign workers.

"I'll give some credence to those statements [of labour shortages], but I don't think they're all-encompassing. For example, if we look at the demographics of our First Nations people in Western Canada, if we look at the non-traditional, at women, at people with disabilities, there is a huge pool of workers that we're not attempting to reach out to," says MacNeil.

"There is a shortage, we don't dispute that. It's just a matter of the degree of the shortage and the solutions of the problem. We don't think that the Temporary Foreign Worker Program is a real solution. We think it's short-sighted and it's ineffective. We believe there are many other ways to go and it should certainly be the last of the last choices."

with files from Stuart Neatby

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