"Abuse of Foreign Workers Unavoidable"
Abuse of foreign workers unavoidable, Alta. Tories suggest
Elise Stolte, Canwest News Service
Published: Wednesday, June 18, 2008
EDMONTON - Some abuse of foreigners working temporarily in Alberta is unavoidable because of conditions in their home countries, Alberta's minister of Employment and Immigration suggested Wednesday.
Hector Goudreau was reacting to news that as many as 120 Chinese workers were paid a fraction of what they were owed for work building tanks at a northern Alberta oilsands site.
The concerns became public only after two of the workers were killed on the job.
When their widows were contacted in China, the wages they said their husbands were taking home were less than 12 per cent of what they should have been paid.
Further research showed the right amount was paid into each employee's bank account, but disappeared before it reached families in China.
"It appears that SSEC (the Canadian arm of the Chinese employer) at some point failed to live up to obligations to its workers," Goudreau said.
"We cannot enforce payments or deduction agreements that are outside our jurisdiction."
Officials with Alberta Employment and Immigration have been investigating the Chinese company since shortly after the fatal accident.
"There many be some recommendations that come out of that investigation," Goudreau said. "Hopefully we can move forward."
David Liu, commercial consul at the Chinese consulate in Calgary, said he will look into the matter and make sure the Chinese company is following the law.
"We just found out from the (newspaper)," Liu said. "We're going to find out what the real situation is."
A Calgary-based SSEC spokeswoman refused to comment Wednesday.
Officials from oilsands company Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. said in 2006 they were looking at hiring a Chinese contractor, complete with Chinese workers, to build a series of multi-storey tanks at the $10.8-billion Horizon oilsands project.
Labour advocates warned the use of temporary foreign workers would drive down domestic wages.
A federal program allows employers to designate worthwhile foreign workers who are then nominated by the province to be fast-tracked through the immigration system to become permanent residents of Canada.
Alberta brought in about 1,600 people last year.
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, set up his own advocacy centre for temporary foreign workers in May 2007.
He has since opened files for 200 workers from Romania, the Philippines, Mexico and Pakistan.
He said no one should expect foreign workers to find and call the Alberta government's 1-800 number, which is only answered in English, or speak to an investigator walking around on site, he said.
"You can't underestimate how intimidated these workers feel," he said.
He said the Chinese workers on the Horizon oilsands site were isolated physically in a work camp and socially because they were not integrated with the regular Canadian workforce.
"(Those Chinese workers) were still working in a one-party communist state. They're used to keeping their heads down and their mouths shut."
Rachel Notley, the NDP's employment critic, said government officials aren't doing enough to monitor the foreign-worker program.
"How could these people not getting their money have gone on this long without somebody noticing?" said Notley, a labour lawyer.
"Were (investigators) really doing the kind of oversight that they claim they were? I don't care if there's a third-party international company involved or not - they work here, they should be paid here, and they should be getting all the rights that anybody working here gets. It's the government's job to make sure that happens."
© Edmonton Journal 2008