Oilsands Temporary Workers: Alberta NDP Cries Foul Over Job Losses

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OIL SANDS
Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason is demanding Premier Alison Redford intervene with the federal government in a dispute over temporary foreign workers in the oilsands. | AFP/Getty Images

EDMONTON - Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason is demanding that Premier Alison Redford intervene with the federal government in a dispute over temporary foreign workers in the oilsands.

Mason says 200 unionized insulators at Suncor's Firebag 3 site were denied work on a project earlier this month after the employer decided to look overseas.

"She needs to pick up the phone to her federal counterparts and say, 'We need to fix this,'" Mason said Wednesday.

"We need to make sure when this program is utilized by employers there is a serious attempt to determine if there are Alberta workers available for the jobs."

Mason stressed he is not against the concept of a foreign worker program, but added he doesn think "these jobs should be left for temporary foreign workers when there are Albertans (available) who are skilled and able to do the jobs."

Flint Energy recently got permission to bring in workers from Portugal and the Philippines after it reported that it couldn't find sufficient skilled help in Canada.

The union says its workers could have joined the new project, but would have had to accept lower wages under the umbrella of a different union contracted to do the work.

Mason says it's one more example of a disturbing trend in which temporary foreign workers are used to undercut unions and depress wages.

Redford's office directed calls to the Intergovernmental, International and Aboriginal Relations Department. Department spokesman Sonia Sinha says officials are discussing the Flint issue with Ottawa as part of an ongoing discussion on how to improve the program.

Immigration is run by the federal government but has direct impact on provinces such as Alberta, which is looking for workers to fill jobs in its rapidly growing oilpatch.

Federal statistics show there were more than 42,000 temporary foreign workers in Alberta last year — a quarter of all such workers in Canada.

In some respects, the issue has the Alberta government and opposition singing from the same song sheet.

Last month, then employment minister Thomas Lukaszuk wrote a letter to federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney asking that the program be fixed. In the note, Lukaszuk said long-term reliance on the program doesn't help workers or the communities they work in.

Lukaszuk said the rules leave workers in limbo — free to exercise their rights to safe employment but with the knowledge that doing so may jeopardize their chances of staying in Canada.

Kenney has promised to revamp the program to eliminate red tape, reduce redundancy and make sure people with the right skills are getting matched with the jobs that need filling.

Ottawa is also looking to recruit more help from south of the border. More and more Americans are looking to Canada for work as the U.S. economy continues to falter.

The Alberta Federation of Labour has suggested the province follow the lead of Manitoba, which keeps closer track of temporary foreign workers to determine where they're working, what they're doing and at what skill level.

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