The provincial government should consider taking oilsands products directly to U.S. consumers, and perhaps set up its own line of gas stations south of the border, the Alberta Federation of Labour says.
"If the Alberta government is serious about moving up the value chain, they may have to consider building their own mechanisms for delivery," the federation said in a new report touted as a blueprint for developing the oilsands.
Besides calling for higher royalty rates, stricter environmental standards and a slower development pace, the document, entitled Black Gold, Clear Vision, suggests Alberta get more involved in upgrading and refining.
It criticizes the Conservatives for allowing raw bitumen to be shipped to the U.S. to be upgraded and refined into products such as gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.
Bitumen should at least be upgraded to synthetic crude in Alberta, and the government should also aim to have more of the refining done at home, AFL president Gil McGowan said Friday.
Alberta could then send finished products to the U.S., keeping more jobs and profit in the province. If American companies resist the move, the province may have to sell the products itself, the document suggests.
"This might involve building dedicated, refined products pipelines. It might even involve looking for retail options in the U.S.," the report says. "The pre-Chavez government of Venezuela did exactly this when they successfully established the Citgo chain of gas stations in the U.S."
McGowan the report was released in the hopes of influencing voters before the provincial election. "The oilsands are so important that we simply can't afford to get it wrong," McGowan said. "While Albertans are being relegated to the lowest rung of the energy ladder, our leaders are asleep at the wheel. We're just afraid that by the time they wake up, the opportunity will have been lost."
Many are criticizing Premier Stelmach after a deal to pipe more bitumen to the US was approved by the National Energy Board.
Enbridge now has approval to begin construction on the $2 billion Canadian portion of the Alberta Clipper.
The deal was approved on Friday and many critics believe it will send more than just raw bitumen to the US.
The Alberta Federation of Labour argues the Premier should have prevented the deal so the oil could have been refined in the province.
"We're talking literally thousands and thousands of jobs that could have been created here in Alberta, but will instead go to places in the American mid-west and the American Gulf Coast," said Gil McGowan with the Alberta Federation of Labour.
A Tory spokesperson told CTV News that Alberta doesn't have the capacity to refine all of its bitumen. They say about two thirds of the oilsands drawn from Alberta are currently refined within the province.
The Premier's office says as more upgraders are built, more local companies can refine crude oil.
The Canadian stretch of the pipeline will run from Enbridge's terminal near Hardisty to the American border crossing near Gretna, Manitoba.
The bitumen will be piped to Superior, Wisonsin and will then be refined in the USA.
This is the second project to be approved in the last six months to pipe crude oil into the USA. The Keystone Pipeline was approved in September.
Construction on the Alberta Clipper is expected to be complete by December 2009.
CTV.ca News Staff, Sun Feb 24 2008
HINTON - Conservative Leader Ed Stelmach was criticized Saturday for failing to stem the flow of bitumen to the United States after regulatory approval was given to a pipeline project that will ship the product south.
The National Energy Board's approval late Friday of the $3-billion Alberta Clipper pipeline will initially see up to 450,000 barrels of bitumen per day shipped to Wisconsin when it becomes operational in mid-2010, with the potential to reach 800,000 barrels per day.
The pipeline is one of several projects announced or approved in the past year that will see bitumen upgraded or refined in the United States, sending potentially billions of investment dollars and thousands of value-added jobs down the pipeline.
During the 2006 Tory leadership race, Stelmach vowed to curb the shipping bitumen out of the country, comparing it to "scraping off the top soil" of prime farmland, but he's yet to implement any major proposals to achieve that end.
Campaigning Saturday through regions in west-central Alberta that rely on a resource-based economy, Stelmach maintained he's still committed to creating more value-added jobs, but won't force companies to follow his wishes.
He argued Alberta will continue to upgrade between 60 and 65 per cent of its bitumen as oilsands development and processing grows.
"It's one thing to say that we're going to use a stick, but we have to carefully look at what (free trade) agreements we have in place," Stelmach told reporters while campaigning in Hinton.
"We have to be very careful how we proceed. The main thing is we have to bring our costs down and that is by getting more tradespeople, and providing the housing and infrastructure."
All the cost and growth pressures are slowing the development of oilsands processing plants in Alberta and contributing to more and more bitumen being exported, he added.
Stelmach has previously suggested the amount of bitumen processed in Alberta will rise to 72 per cent by 2016, spurred by new upgraders on the drawing board and the government's value-added plans, which are still in the works.
The Tory leader has also said it's foolish to force energy companies to upgrade all their bitumen in Alberta because it would sink the price of the product.
Alberta produces about 1.3 million barrels of bitumen per day -- with about 800,000 barrels of that, or 62 per cent, staying in Alberta, and 500,000 barrels being exported and upgraded outside Canada.
Campaigning in east-central Alberta, Liberal Leader Kevin Taft said the Progressive Conservatives have dropped the ball on the issue by failing to adopt a comprehensive value-added policy that would keep the jobs and oilsands in Alberta.
"The Tories shrugged their shoulders and they're letting Albertans' wealth go south of the border," Taft said in Wainwright. "They just let it go and it's a huge strategic opportunity (lost) for Alberta."
Taft's value-added policy, however, has raised some eyebrows.
The Liberal leader would like to see bitumen upgraded in Alberta, but said there's a benefit to shipping some of the oilsands to other provinces, rather than losing it to the United States.
But Greg Stringham, vice-president with Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, noted Albertans are receiving great benefits from the oilsands processing already occurring in the province.
He suggested the percentage of total bitumen being processed in Alberta could rise to more than 70 per cent by 2015 as the upgrading capacity comes in line with oilsands development -- about 3.5 million barrels per day.
"We're already getting great value here with the upgrading," Stringham said. "It's going to come along with the oilsands development."
Political observers, meanwhile, said the timing of the Clipper pipeline announcement is "like a slap in the face" to Stelmach because he's been so public about the issue. It also shows the Tory leader hasn't been able to persuade big oil and gas companies to follow his wishes, argued David Taras, political analyst at the University of Calgary.
"This was high on the hit parade during the leadership race and now it seems to be a forgotten policy," said Taras, suggesting the energy board's decision is another speed bump in Stelmach's campaign.
"One after another, it's become a nightmare campaign in which almost two or three times a week there's a shock to the campaign and it always seems to be bad news."
NDP Leader Brian Mason and labour groups immediately went on the offensive, arguing Stelmach is breaking one of his biggest political promises by sitting on his hands while new pipelines are built to export Alberta's crudest product.
"It's just exporting our jobs to the United States," Mason said.
He echoed protests by the Alberta Federation of Labour against $10.4 billion in new international oilsands delivery routes that the National Energy Board approved since September.
The lineup poised to enter construction includes the $5.2-billion Keystone Pipeline by TransCanada Corp., and the $3-billion Alberta Clipper and $2.2-billion Southern Lights projects by Enbridge Inc.
The Keystone project alone will export 18,000 jobs to the U.S., predicts an expert consultants' report done for the federation when it unsuccessfully fought the proposal at NEB hearings.
Among major participants in the emerging international oilsands network, EnCana Corp. ships bitumen to ConocoPhillips refineries in Texas and Illinois.
Husky Energy scrapped a planned $2.3-billion addition to its Lloydminster heavy crude upgrader and will ship its bitumen to a BP refinery in Ohio. Marathon Oil is expanding a Detroit plant to handle newly acquired Fort McMurray production.
By obtaining NEB approval of Alberta Clipper late Friday, the industry could export 1.4 million barrels a day of bitumen by 2015, or almost all forecast oilsands production growth, labour federation president Gil McGowan said.
"It won't be just raw bitumen going down those pipelines -- we'll also be losing thousands of high-paying upgrader and refinery jobs," McGowan said.
Wildrose Alliance Leader Paul Hinman, who says more upgrading incentives are needed in Alberta, questioned whether Stelmach has a plan to keep the wealth and jobs in the province.
"His platitudes and promises are hollow. He talks the talk, he never walks the walk," Hinman said in an interview. "This pipeline is shipping out our very precious natural resources and giving them to someone else to process and make all the money."
Calgary Herald, Page A1, Sun Feb 24 2008
Byline: Jason Fekete and Gordon Jaremko
The approval of a groundbreaking pipeline to take diluent from the U.S. to Alberta is being slammed by critics who also blame the provincial government for standing on the sidelines, doing nothing to prevent job loss in Alberta.
The National Energy Board (NEB) announced Tuesday the approval of the Enbridge Inc. Southern Lights pipeline project, which has an estimated pricetag of $247.5 million.
"We are very pleased that this major milestone in the project has been achieved," said Patrick D. Daniel, Enbridge president and chief executive officer, in a statement. "By increasing diluent import capacity, Southern Lights is very important to the economic development of Western Canadian crude oil production. As the NEB acknowledged, Southern Lights is an innovative and cost-effective solution to transport diluent."
However, both the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) and the national Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP) are opposed to the pipeline because they say it's the last piece of a puzzle enabling other pipelines to transport Alberta resources and jobs south. Diluents are lighter hydrocarbons used to dilute bitumen and heavy oil so they can flow through pipelines.
"The Southern Lights pipeline may seem innocuous, but it's providing the lubricant that will grease the way for massive bitumen exports," said Gil McGowan, AFL president.
He added synthetic oil can be used as a diluent, but Enbridge isn't going to bother upgrading enough in Alberta, choosing instead to bring diluent up from the U.S.
"The fact that this pipeline will be used to make it easier to export jobs from Alberta seems to be entirely lost on these industry people, and it baffles me," said McGowan.
The project involves reversing the flow of Enbridge's Line 13 for the diluent, which currently transports light synthetic crude oil from Edmonton to Clearbrook, Minn. It will have a capacity of 180,000 barrels a day. Compensating for the loss of the southbound pipe are two components: one conversion and one new pipeline. A new 20-inch diluent pipeline from Chicago to Edmonton via Clearbrook is planned, subject to U.S. regulatory approvals. To replace the crude oil capacity of Line 13, a 20-inch light sour crude oil pipeline will be built from Cromer, Man., to Clearbrook.
The project broke new ground as the first application to the NEB for a pipeline to transport diluent, which the board identified as an emerging market.
Jennifer Varey, spokeswoman, explained Enbridge applied for this project in answer to customer demand as diluent supplies were beginning to dry up. Construction is anticipated to begin by the end of the year.
McGowan says the approval highlights the need for a clear plan from the provincial government to keep oilsands jobs in Alberta.
"Frankly, I'm shocked that we're halfway through a provincial election campaign, and Premier (Ed) Stelmach has yet to unveil a plan to designed to promote Alberta-based value added oilsands production."
Don Boucher, administrative vice-president of CEP western region, shared McGowan's criticism, saying the union, though "very disappointed" by the decision, wasn't surprised by it.
"We feel this board is sleepwalking through the biggest decisions in history on our energy policies for our country. This is the wrong product going to the wrong place. There must be jobs created in Canada, not delivered to the U.S."
McGowan recalled that during the Tory leadership, Stelmach said allowing companies to export raw bitumen without first upgrading or refining it in Alberta was "like a farmer selling off his topsoil." Also, Stelmach gave a mandate letter to Energy Minister Mel Knight to develop a strategy to promote Alberta-based upgrading and refining. That strategy is still outstanding.
"All Premier Stelmach, and people like Guy Boutilier and Energy Minister Mel Knight have done is stand on the sidelines. If they continue to stand on the sidelines, pretty soon the game is going to be over, and Albertans will be the losers."
By keeping the product in Canada, Boucher said it helps provide jobs and keep communities viable. It also keeps the taxes in Canada. "People have to be more informed on the decisions that are happening with their National Energy Board to really realize that it's our resources that are being shipped out of the country."
Fort McMurray Today, Page A5, Fri Feb 22 2008
Byline: Carol Christian
As a week marked by massive pre-election spending draws to a close, the $1.3-billion question facing Alberta is whether the province has the manpower -- and capacity -- to complete government's ambitious construction wish list on time and on budget.
Unions and taxpayer groups worry an overheated construction market and chronic labour shortages will cause cost overruns and delays on the flurry of projects Alberta has announced recently, including schools, hospital redevelopments and roadwork.
In the past dozen days, spending announcements made by Premier Ed Stelmach's government totalled more than $1 billion, according to a Canadian Taxpayers Federation tally of the promises.
The spending comes as government estimates $245 billion worth of megaprojects are underway or slated to move ahead in Alberta over the next two years, fuelled largely by massive expansion in the oilsands.
"It's obviously a concern to us," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"(Oilsands) projects are going to require a construction workforce of more than 200,000. These public projects are just going to make it much more difficult for contractors to find the workers they need."
But Alberta's associate minister of capital planning said the government projects are part of a long-term plan, which the province also unveiled this week, and will be staged to ensure the work is manageable.
"I don't understand the negativity," said Gene Zwozdesky. "It's not all going to happen all in one day. It's a strategic plan that takes you over a period of several years."
The comments follow the Alberta government's announcement of several big-ticket capital projects in recent days, including 14 new schools, a hospital redevelopment project in Medicine Hat and $300 million to build long-term care centres around the province.
Government announcements continued Friday, with the province unveiling millions more for initiatives like upgrading supportive living units around Alberta.
The promises come in advance of an expected provincial election call next week.
But they also come at a time when Alberta faces a labour shortage and a new Calgary Economic Development forecast suggested the problems will continue in the future. The report released this week concluded 244,000 jobs, including construction positions, could be added to this city over the next decade.
In recent years, a shortage of construction workers has delayed projects, while the rising expense of materials and labour has sent costs soaring.
The south Calgary hospital, for example, was budgeted at $550 million in 2005, but growing building costs and delays in starting the project have since pushed the price tag to $1.25 billion.
Organizations such as the Alberta Construction Association said it's difficult to know whether the recently-announced provincial projects will face similar problems since the timelines around many of the initiatives have yet to be determined.
"We haven't really got a clear sense of the timetable," said Ken Gibson, executive director of the association. "It's tough to comment."
Calgary Economic Development agreed it's difficult to know whether there will be enough construction workers without knowing the project schedules.
Adam Legge, chief economist of the organization, said construction trades are still in high demand today, even though the market isn't quite as tight as it was 18 months ago.
Other groups, like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said the province will inevitably pay more for its projects. Federation officials noted the government is competing for materials and labour in a hot construction environment, with Suncor Energy announcing a giant $20-billion oilsands expansion Wednesday.
"The manner they're going about this is going to create as many problems as it will solve," said Scott Hennig of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
Hennig argued a glut of government capital spending, which he said has grown from $1 billion annually in 2002 to $7 billion in the 2007-08 budget, is further inflating construction prices.
Frank Atkins, a University of Calgary economist, said he doubted the government projects would have a big impact on labour and materials, noting the initiatives are small compared with the massive Alberta construction market as a whole.
"It's small potatoes," he said.
Calgary Herald, Sat Feb 2 2008
Byline: Michelle Lang
Unions are warning Alberta's employment minister they will take the government to court if it doesn't change labour-relations rules that contravene a recent Supreme Court ruling.
The Alberta Federation of Labour -- the province's largest labour organization -- sent a letter Friday to Iris Evans asking for a meeting to discuss legislative changes. If changes are not made, unions will look for specific cases they could use to challenge Alberta labour laws in court, according to the letter sent just before Labour Day.
"And we both know a number of sections will not survive a court challenge. But there is another option," Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan wrote to the minister.
"We can work together to repair the damaged parts of the (Alberta Labour Relations) Code and other labour legislation and save Albertans the money, time and hassle of having to use the lengthy court process."
The AFL met last week with 50 senior labour leaders who represent most of Alberta's unionized work force to discuss the June Supreme Court decision that affects unions' right to collective bargaining.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that collective bargaining rights are protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees freedom of association.
The landmark ruling came out of a British Columbia case but has repercussions for laws across the country.
The Alberta Federation of Labour argues there are numerous pieces of labour legislation in this province that interfere with unions' now constitutionally protected right to bargain collectively.
For instance, said McGowan, a group of carpenters who voted last month in favour of a strike still can't walk off the job because current laws group that union with another union representing labourers. The votes of both unions must be counted before either one can serve strike notice.
"The section of the labour code dealing with construction workers was designed to make it almost impossible for those workers to go on strike. Those kinds of unreasonable and unfair rules and hurdles are no longer constitutional as a result of the recent court decision," McGowan said.
Other Alberta legislation prevents provincial employees from bargaining their own pensions, and separate rules stop agriculture workers from joining unions, McGowan said.
"So basically, what the court said in this decision was that labour law in all Canadian provinces should be used to facilitate collective bargaining, not to undermine it."
A spokeswoman for Alberta Employment, Immigration and Industry said the department is already working with Alberta Justice to review the Supreme Court decision and determine its implications for Alberta legislation.
Calgary Herald, Page B2, Mon Sept 3 2007
KEVIN NEWMAN: Well with so many of us returning to the habit of waking to an alarm clock again, a new survey of Canadian workers on this Labour Day showing that in spite of a booming economy in much of the country, job satisfaction is sinking. Francis Silvaggio is also on his first day back from vacation, so he seemed like the right guy to handle this one.
FRANCIS SILVAGGIO (Reporter): Alberta's economy continues to boom. There's more work, more money, more people. So why are these labour leaders concerned?
GIL MCGOWAN (Alberta Federation of Labour): We've got a growing disparity between people on the top end making a lot of money and people on the bottom end making much less. And it's not just a disparity in wages.
SILVAGGIO: In fact Graham Lowe's research discovered even though Canada's economy has grown over the past 25 year, actual job quality has declined and only about half of us are satisfied with our jobs.
GRAHAM LOWE (Employment Researcher): Because the economy is so strong these days, you might think that there would be benefits for people in terms of improvements in the quality of their workplace. We're not seeing that.
SILVAGGIO: That's no surprise to national labour groups that have seen union memberships fall sharply as well.
SID RYAN (CUPE Ontario President): They're making profits at the expense of the workers is what they're doing, and they're using globalization as the battering ram to force unions and to force employers to, employees to lower their wage demands, open up their collective agreements, give concessions.
SILVAGGIO: As the workforce begins to shift with the retirement of our baby boomers, experts say job quality will be more important than ever to keep our economy growing.
LOWE: By providing people with better quality work environments. Work environment that really encourage them, inspire them to contribute their best, that is going to improve business success. It's also going to make people want to stay with their employer so it's going to reduce turnover. It's going to reduces absenteeism, and absenteeism is trending up in this country, that's a problem. So it's going to have a lot of positive chaos for the economy overall.
SILVAGGIO: Which is why on this Labour Day, labour officials are urging all levels of government to take action.
MCGOWAN: Is this the kind of Canada that we want, that's sort of divided between the haves and have-nots. Shouldn't we be fighting for a stronger middle class Canada that allows everyone to share in the prosperity? That's the challenge for our policymakers.
GLOBAL NATIONAL, Mon Sept 3 2007
Co-operate or face court fight, trade unions tell province; Supreme Court ruling means laws now violate charter, labour federation says
EDMONTON - Unions are warning Alberta's employment minister that they will take the government to court if it doesn't change labour relations rules that contravene a recent Supreme Court ruling.
The Alberta Federation of Labour, the province's largest labour organization, sent a letter Friday to Iris Evans asking for a meeting to discuss legislative changes. If changes are not made, unions will look for specific cases they could use to challenge Alberta labour laws in court, says the letter sent just before Labour Day.
"And we both know a number of sections will not survive a court challenge. But there is another option," Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan wrote to the minister.
"We can work together to repair the damaged parts of the (Alberta Labour Relations) Code and other labour legislation, and save Albertans the money, time and hassle of having to use the lengthy court process."
The AFL met last week with 50 senior labour leaders who represent most of the province's unionized work force to discuss the June Supreme Court decision that affects unions' right to collective bargaining.
The court ruled that collective bargaining rights are protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees freedom of association.
The landmark ruling came out of a British Columbia case, but has repercussions for laws across the country.
The AFL argues there are numerous pieces of labour legislation in this province that interfere with unions' now constitutionally protected right to bargain collectively.
For instance, said McGowan, a group of carpenters that voted last month in favour of a strike still can't walk off the job because current laws group that union with another union representing labourers. The votes of both unions must be counted before either one can serve strike notice.
"The section of the labour code dealing with construction workers was designed to make it almost impossible for those workers to go on strike," McGowan said.
"Those kinds of unreasonable and unfair rules and hurdles are no longer constitutional as a result of the recent court decision."
Other Alberta legislation prevents provincial employees from bargaining their own pensions, and rules stop agriculture workers from joining unions, McGowan said.
"So basically, what the court said in this decision was that labour law in all Canadian provinces should be used to facilitate collective bargaining, not to undermine it."
Senior labour lawyer Bob Blair said he can't predict if the Alberta government will change laws before unions challenge them in court.
"Certainly, the history hasn't been one of changing legislation to head off constitutional challenges. In fact, the legislation hasn't changed since 1988 in any substantial way."
Blair, who was chairman of the Alberta Labour Relations Board from 1994 to 1999, said the government has never amended laws that prevent agriculture workers from unionizing.
"Similar laws have been struck down in other provinces," said Blair, whose law firm represents trade unions and has acted for the AFL.
"The Supreme Court of Canada has clearly said that it is not permissible, and it said it several years ago and the legislation hasn't been changed."
A spokeswoman for Alberta Employment, Immigration and Industry said the department is working with Alberta Justice to review the Supreme Court decision and determine its implications for Alberta legislation.
"Minister Evans has already directed her officials to prepare a plan to consult with Albertans regarding consolidation of labour legislation in the province," Lorelei Fiset-Cassidy said.
"However, there is still a significant amount of work to be done, and that will take some time."
Edmonton Journal, Page A13, Mon Sept 3 2007
Byline: Andrea Sands
Days after Alberta's labour market was declared tops in North America, 125,000 of its unionized workers are demanding a review of provincial labour legislation they say is weak and unconstitutional.
The Alberta Federation of Labour has sent a letter to Iris Evans, minister of employment, industry and immigration, to review the laws -- two days after the Fraser Institute declared Alberta the labour market champ among the 10 provinces and 50 U.S. states.
AFL president Gil McGowan blasted the study, saying it claims unions are "a drag on economic performance."
"Alberta has a higher rate of unionized workers than every American state and yet we outperform them," he said.
"How does the Fraser Institute explain that?"
McGowan said aspects of Alberta's labour legislation don't conform to recent Supreme Court decisions -- including a recent ruling in B.C. that enshrined the right to collective bargaining -- which spurred the call on Evans for a review.
"We're not asking her to change labour law in the province, we're telling her," said McGowan.
"The most recent decision is something too big and too significant to be ignored."
More than 50 of Alberta's labour leaders discussed the B.C. ruling before the long weekend, saying they would be prepared to take the law to court as a result.
Sections of the laws that could be overturned if challenged include prohibiting agricultural workers from joining unions and bans on secondary picketing, said McGowan.
The Calgary Sun, Page 8, Sun Sept 2 2007
Byline: Katie Schneider
Ernesto Rodarte, a foreign worker from Mexico, says he and other Mexican workers are being exploited by employers even though Calgary is in the middle of a major labour shortage. Rodarte came to Canada in March to work for Bridge Brand Food Services as an overnight warehouse worker. He describes the company as a "slavedriver" that takes advantage of workers from other countries who are here trying to earn some money for their families. He says he was fired because he refused to work on a day off, missed a mandatory meeting that was scheduled on a day off and because he once called in sick after his shift was supposed to start.
Rodarte makes a number of claims about his former employer's employment practices. He says his contract specified that he would only be required to work 40 hours a week and eight hours each day. However, he says the company regularly scheduled workers for 10-hour shifts and then asked them to stay for another two or three hours each night. "They were pushing so hard for us to stay an extra couple of hours," he says. "It's very physically demanding. At the end of the day you want time to rest and recover."
He says he was regularly asked to work on his two scheduled days off, and that even if he refused, his name would appear on a schedule. Rodarte also claims that a supervisor threatened to fire him and other foreign workers if they didn't meet "impossible" productivity quotas each day. "He told us he was going to let us go unless we got those numbers," says Rodarte.
He says the company didn't report injuries to the worker's compensation board and that he was injured three times, though none of the injuries were reported. In one instance, Rodarte says he twisted his ankle and was limping. "I asked them, 'Am I supposed to work like this?' and they said, 'yes.'" When he got home after the shift was over his ankle was severely swollen.
Rodarte had lived in an apartment provided by the company but says he was kicked out a week after being fired, even though he had paid the full month's rent. He shared the two-bedroom apartment with three other workers.
He says he's speaking out because he doesn't want other employers to get away with exploiting foreign workers. "They feel they can exploit everybody because we're foreign, from Mexico. They have the impression we are very ignorant and know nothing," he says, adding that that attitude leaves "a bad taste in my mouth. Not a lot of people stand up for themselves, because they feel frightened they might end up losing their jobs. Most of them have families and they need that income to support their families."
Rodarte has filed a complaint against the company with the Alberta government and is considering filing a human rights claim.
Tim Sinclair, director of human relations at Bridge Brand Food Services, says "all of the allegations are false." He says the company can't comment on Rodarte's claims because "we don't discuss individual performance issues outside the organization." However, he says the company has never asked an injured worker to continue working, and it regularly files injury reports. He adds that no worker is forced to work overtime or to work on days off. "All of our time is voluntary," he says.
Sinclair says the company in no way exploits foreign workers. "We know that our people, everyone of our people, are really our competitive advantage. We treat everyone equally. There's nobody treated differently from myself down," he says.
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), says he's heard many stories similar to Rodarte's in the last few months. The AFN recently opened an office to help foreign workers and has already dealt with 100 different cases.
"I'm certainly not going to suggest that every employer who uses temporary foreign workers takes advantage of them, but there's certainly a significant minority of unscrupulous employers who do take advantage of (foreign workers') vulnerability to force workers to do things that are both illegal and dangerous," says McGowan. He says complaints range from foreign workers not getting paid what they were promised to workers being forced to do dangerous jobs without proper training or safety equipment.
Although temporary foreign workers are supposed to be protected by the same Employment Standards Code as all other Alberta workers, McGowan says that's not happening. McGowan would like to see the government conduct unannounced workplace inspections of companies employing foreign workers. He says the current system relies on foreign workers making complaints before there's any investigation. "The provincial government is relying on vulnerable and often scared temporary foreign workers to make complaints in a system they don't understand and often in a language that's new to them," says McGowan, adding that foreign workers often won't complain about employers because they have to make money to send home to their families and can't risk being deported.
"The employers know the workers are going to be very unlikely to complain, and they also know no one is watching them, so they end up trying to get away with practices that are outrageous."
Another issue the AFN is hearing complaints about is recruiters charging temporary foreign workers fees to get them jobs in Canada. Rodarte was charged $1,000 by a Calgary broker, and he says many other Mexican workers have paid the same fee. "We knew that money was going into his pocket, but you don't know how to come to Canada. Even though he's robbing you, you need this guy," he says.
McGowan says the government should also be going after such employment brokers more aggressively to ensure worker rights.
Terry Jorden, spokesperson for Alberta Employment, Immigration and Industry, says employment standards investigators are currently looking into Rodarte's complaint against his employer. "The Alberta government is grateful for workers like this coming forward with problems. We realize how difficult it is for temporary foreign workers to make the complaint, to figure out which government department handles these sorts of things and no doubt they have a certain amount of fear they may lose their jobs," he says.
Jorden says a couple of weeks ago the provincial and federal governments signed an agreement to share information on temporary foreign workers, which now allows the province to find out where temporary foreign workers are employed. "With that information we'll be better equipped to respond," he says.
Jorden couldn't comment on whether the government will start doing unannounced inspections, but he says the government is concerned about any exploitation of foreign workers. "Temporary foreign workers make up a fraction of one per cent of our workforce. However, these kinds of problems that are coming up can really damage Alberta's reputation around the world, and so although the numbers are small, we take them very seriously, and we're trying reduce and eliminate the occurrence," he says. He also says it is illegal for recruiters to charge employees to get them a job and he says the government investigates such complaints.
Fast Forward Weekly, Page 10, Thurs Aug 16 2007
Byline: Amy Steele