Foreign worker program ‘broken’: union

Deaths of 3 temporary Chinese workers in Alberta spark labour ire

In light of the two temporary foreign workers who died at an oilsands project north of Fort McMurray, Alta., last month, the Alberta Federation of Labour is calling for a review of the federal temporary foreign worker program.

Temporary foreign workers have unique needs and unique challenges the federal government needs to address in new legislation and regulations, said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL).

“The temporary foreign worker program is broken and it needs to be fixed. Until it is, temporary foreign workers will not have the protections they need in the workplace and which Canadian workers have for themselves and take for granted,” said McGowan.

The two Chinese workers, engineer Hong Liang Liu and scaffolder Genbao Ge, died last month when the roof of a huge oil container collapsed. Four other Chinese workers were injured. The site is part of Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.’s $10.8-billion Horizon oilsands project and the workers were employed by Sinopec Shanghai Engineering Company Canada.

While temporary foreign workers fall under the same legislative and regulatory protections as Canadian workers and have the right to refuse unsafe work, McGowan questions whether they’re fully aware of their rights or, if they are, if they feel comfortable exercising them.

When it comes to temporary foreign workers, employers hold all the power, said McGowan. There have been instances where a temporary foreign worker has complained about working conditions and the employer has fired him, effectively sending the worker back to his country of origin, he said.

“They don’t have the same kind of job security and mobility as a Canadian worker,” he said.

However, it’s premature to assign blame for the deaths before there has been a full investigation, warned Barrie Harrison, a spokesperson for Alberta Occupational Health and Safety.

“Making some sort of relation between this incident and the fact that temporary foreign workers were working at the site is a bit of a leap right now,” said Harrison. “We owe it to the family and friends of those who died to make sure that we conduct this investigation thoroughly, without prejudice, and that’s the way we plan on doing it.”

Immediately after the incident, there were four health and safety officers on site and now there are two lead investigators who will be investigating the incident over the next few months, said Harrison.

“It’s certainly not uncommon for an investigation into any fatality to take a number of months,” he said.

Language barrier

This particular incident is complicated by the fact the investigators will have to bring in Chinese interpreters to interview the other workers. Even though the company has its own interpreters, Alberta Occupational Health and Safety wants to ensure the impartiality of the interpreters during the interviews.

Alberta Occupational Health and Safety is also bringing in an independent engineering firm to analyze and inspect the site to further determine how the structure collapsed, said Harrison.

Unique concerns

The AFL wants to ensure the inspectors investigating the deaths are aware of the specific challenges temporary foreign workers might face and how these might have contributed to the incident.

“All we’re asking is that when the accident is investigated that the investigators keep in mind that this was a group of temporary foreign workers we’re talking about and that they broaden their investigation to ask questions that might not otherwise have been asked if this was an accident involving domestic tradespeople,” said McGowan.

The inspectors should ensure the workers received all the appropriate, Canadian-specific health and safety training and that the language barrier was addressed, said McGowan

Alberta Occupational Health and Safety is well aware of the challenges language can pose on a work site. Besides temporary foreign workers, there are many Canadian workers who speak a language other than English, said Harrison.

The language concerns and mechanisms to address them, such as having an interpreter as part of the work crew, are part of the regular occupational health and safety inspections, he said.

Fatality rate decreasing

Despite the job boom in Alberta, or maybe because of it, Harrison has seen a shift in workplace culture to one that values workplace safety. While individual time-lost claims and workplace fatalities have increased, because there were almost 90,000 new jobs in 2006, fatality rates have actually dropped, said Harrison. The last time the fatality rate increased was in 1991.

But looking at the rates instead of the instances isn’t something Harrison is proud of.

“It’s not something that we believe deserves bragging rights,” said Harrison. “We still believe, and will always believe, that one workplace death is too many.”

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