Foreign workers spark debate about labour shortage

All eyes are on Fort McMurray, Alta., and the battle raging over labour in the oilsands

When the federal government greenlighted a plan to import 680 skilled foreign workers to help in Alberta’s booming oilsands construction projects, it ignited a firestorm among labour groups and sparked a debate about whether or not there is a shortage of skilled labour.

Unions are adamant there is no shortage, while some employers charge they can’t find enough qualified workers.

“There is not a shortage of skilled workers, but there is a tight market,” said Gil McGown, director of communications for the Alberta Federation of Labour. “But that’s a significant difference.”

In a tight market, workers simply have more options and can be picky about choosing who they want to work for and under what conditions. If companies want a steady stream of workers, then they simply need to hire contractors who are able to provide the necessary labour, he said.

There are a handful of contractors, particularly non-union ones, that are winning contracts based on performance promises they can’t meet, he said. These contractors then beg for special treatment from the government in recruiting foreign labour.

Immigration, not temp workers

Even if there is a shortage, McGown said temporary foreign workers are not the solution.

Despite some overtly racist comments — an Aboriginal worker was quoted in a Fort McMurray, Alta., newspaper as saying she was “tired of people not speaking English, working our jobs” — McGown said unions don’t have a problem with immigration.

“It’s unfortunate that the message has become a bit muddied,” he said. “We’re talking about people’s jobs and their livelihoods here, and some people have said things they probably didn’t mean.”

None of the unions are opposed to immigration, to bringing in new Canadians and helping them set up careers and establish new lives in Canada, he said.

“But the difference here, and this should be clear, is that this is not immigration. What they’re proposing is to bring temporary workers from other countries,” said McGown. “If importing workers from outside the country is a necessary strategy then bring them in as full immigrants and put them on the path to becoming Canadian citizens. But that’s not what’s being proposed.”

An unlikely ally

Labour has found a bit of an unlikely ally in Conservative MP Brian Jean, the representative for the federal riding of Fort McMurray-Athabasca.

“To bring in foreign workers, and fly them from Caracas, Venezuela to Edmonton and then up to Fort McMurray and then camp them 40 miles north and then fly them back home, that’s insane,” said Jean. “It’s just not a good idea.”

He said there is definitely a labour shortage in Fort McMurray, but it’s not among the skilled trades. The city needs more people to staff positions at places like Quizno’s, Tim Hortons and McDonald’s.

Jean would like the government to open the floodgates on immigration, as long as they don’t all flock to the major centres. Between 1991 and 2001, 80 per cent of immigrants settled in Canada’s five largest urban centres.

“We need another one million to two million people in this country,” he said. “But we don’t need more people in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. We need more immigrants who are qualified, or are prepared to be qualified, and stay here and raise families and have a happy old time being a Canadian.”

But Fort McMurray has a major housing problem that needs to be solved before anybody else rolls into town, he said. The city has the worst infrastructure in the country and there are simply no affordable places to live, he said. He’s seen a mobile home on the market for $370,000. One-bedroom apartments run $1,500 a month. A quick check of the Multiple Listing Service shows 125 homes for sale in Fort McMurray, the cheapest weighing in at $223,900 and the most expensive coming in just under $800,000.

The problem? The city is busting at the seams and has no more room to expand. Jean said the province owns all the land around the city, and needs to free some up for development so the municipality can grow.

Jean said he can understand why companies want to keep costs down, noting the last three plants constructed had cost overruns in the neighbourhood of 150 per cent, but questioned why there was such a rush to develop the oilsands.

“We have a resource that is not leaving the country, it’s not going anywhere,” he said. “You can’t run a pipeline to China under the earth, so the oil is staying here. Prices are not going down, so why should we bring in foreign workers?”

If the province would free up land for the city to expand, and manage the resource properly, the recipe is there for the area to boom for the next century, he said.

Can’t escape demographic

Cheryl Knight, executive director and CEO of the Petroleum Human Resources Sector Council in Calgary, said explosive growth in the oilsands means companies may have no choice but to turn to alternative sources of labour such as foreign workers.

She said there are about 33,000 workers in the industry now, a number expected to swell to 102,000 over the next decade. Strategies, such as increasing the number of women and Aboriginals in the workforce, increasing the number of apprentices and drawing workers from across Canada, will help with the crunch but it might not be enough.

“I can say that bringing in foreign workers is an expensive proposition and I would be very surprised if a company would do that if they haven’t tried other options first,” said Knight.

Numbers muddy

Tim Woods, director of communications with the Canadian Labour and Business Centre, said there’s no doubt there is a shortage of skilled labour in some parts of the country. But it’s almost impossible to find regional-specific data.

“That’s one of the major problems,” he said. “When decisions are made about allowing in temporary workers, it’s very contentious as to the data source that is used. It’s crazy that we don’t have better numbers about labour supply and demand at the local level.”

There’s no doubt the Canadian workforce is aging. Workers 45 and older formed an increasing share of the labour force during the 1990s, rising from 26 per cent in 1990 to 34 per cent in 2002.

“That’s basically a 30 per cent increase in only a decade,” said Woods. And because during that time the number of workers over the age of 55 remained relatively stable, that means a wave of retirees are coming in the next decade.

But what that means for the oilsands is tough to predict, he said, because different sectors have different average retirement ages. For example, the average retirement age in educational services was 56.4 in 1999. But for construction, the sector where many of the oilsands jobs are, the average retirement age was 64.9.

So a workforce with a large number of 55-year-olds would pose a crisis for the education sector but wouldn’t be much of an immediate concern for construction, he said.

“But on the other hand, if you look forward five to 10 years, it’s pretty clear that you can’t escape the demographic,” said Woods.

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