Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Migrant workers bump Canadians in McMurray?

Back when the temporary foreign worker (TFW) program was ramping up, elected officials were quick to assure voters that TFWs posed no threat to Canadian jobs. Here are a few 2005 quotes from Tory cabinet Ministers recorded in Hansard to this effect:
Dr. Oberg: Lastly, the whole idea behind a temporary foreign worker is… to take these workers, bring them over here for a temporary period of time when they are needed, when there is the workforce boom that is going on, when we can’t supply it, and then at the end of three years they have to go home. Alberta, Alberta Hansard, 27 April 2005a, Lyle Oberg PC, pp. 1090-1

Mr. Cardinal: … The first priority for Alberta, our government… is to hire Albertans first wherever possible, Canadians second…. When an employer has exhausted that, then they have an opportunity to apply through the federal government to bring in foreign workers…. It’s definitely not a top priority for industries, definitely not a top priority for our government… who like to see our own local people working first. Alberta, Alberta Hansard, 16 March 2005b, Mike Cardinal PC, p. 280

There are dozens of similar comments where MLAs justify an increasingly migrant workforce. Yet there are also hints that these kinds of statements aren't true, especially during the economic downturn of 2008/09 when employers kept on TFWs and laid off domestic workers. There is also evidence that the federal system of evaluating employer claims about the need for TFWs was a bit thin on the "evaluate" part of "evaluating" (lots of "ing", though!).

Along the way, the feds loosened the rules. Requests for permits would proceed faster, they said (because that improves the quality of evaluation...) and several occupations required no evaluation (generally construction). Not surprisingly, with no real need to prove a labour shortage exists, some employers have decided to hire TFWs regardless of whether Canadians are available.

For example, Fort McMurray Today is reporting 270 Canadian pipefitters and welders and Husky's Sunrise project got laid off in September and have been replaced with TFWs from Portugal, Ireland, Mexico and Italy. Of course, none of the players is talking about why this happened--there are rumours of a paydispute between companies and talk that TFWs are cheaper than unionized Canadians. All of this seems contrary to the purpose of the TFW program--to address short-term labour shortages.

One of the more troubling aspects of this displacement centres on accusations that TFWs are working unsafely:
Fougere also witnessed several foreign workers operate equipment unsafely or wander into restricted areas without protective gear. Fougere says many did not understand the Alberta labour code or basic warning labels on hazardous materials. 
When he brought his concerns about the qualifications of the temporary foreign workers to Husky, Fougere says they fell on deaf ears. 
“Just to get through the door, we need certificates and licences up the ying-yang like Red Seal certification. It let’s them know that as Canadians, we’re all qualified to the standards,” he says. “These guys coming in, how the hell can they get in without our qualifications? Or how do we know how good their qualifications from other countries are?”
It is useful to keep in mind that these kinds of accusations can reflect a variety of different agendas and, indeed, there are many ways to approach the issue of TFWs.

On that note, Jason Foster and I will be presenting a paper on how Alberta MLAs "construct" migrant work and migrant workers on October 25th at the Metropolis conference Transforming Citizenship: Ethnicity, Transnationalism, and Belonging in Canada (held at the Faculte St Jean campus of the U of Alberta). 

-- Bob Barnetson

No comments:

Post a Comment