SYS-CON MEDIA Authors: Pat Romanski, Sean Houghton, Glenn Rossman, Ignacio M. Llorente, Xenia von Wedel

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Lives Are At Stake If Government Doesn't Fix Foreign Worker Fiasco

AFL Calls on Federal AG to Investigate Safety Concerns Surrounding Fast-Track Program for TFWs in Oil Sands Construction

EDMONTON, ALBERTA -- (Marketwired) -- 09/01/14 -- Worker safety is being put at risk by lack of oversight for a program that fast-tracked guest workers in Alberta's oil patch.

As reported today by CBC news, workers at the Husky Sunrise project in the Alberta oil sands have come forward with accounts of significant safety violations and near misses caused by inexperienced and unqualified workers hired through the Alberta Pilot for Occupation-Specific Work Permits, a special fast-track stream of the Temporary Foreign Worker program.

"When it comes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, we've raised concerns about wage suppression, exploitation of foreign workers and the displacement of Canadians. But now it's becoming clear that the program also has serious implications for workplace safety," Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said.

"What we're seeing is that employers have been using the Alberta Occupation-Specific pilot program to hire unskilled workers to do skilled work in oil sands construction. Without the proper skills and training, these workers are putting themselves and others at risk of serious injury or even death."

Originally launched in June 2011, the Pilot allowed employers to hire unqualified workers from abroad for specific occupations without first demonstrating that efforts had been made to offer the jobs to qualified Canadians. Information on the Pilot is difficult to obtain, but based on what's available, the Alberta Federation of Labour estimates that only 24 per cent of guest workers hired under the Occupation-Specific fast track are fully qualified as tradespeople.

"We fear that some of the guest workers given a work permit through the Pilot are unqualified as tradespeople and unfit to work on Alberta industrial construction sites because of their inability to effectively communicate with coworkers," McGowan said in a letter asking the federal Auditor General to conduct a non-partisan review of the program. "Everybody wants to ensure that Canadian workplaces are safe workplaces. An audit of this program would help ensure that standards are maintained, and could prevent injuries and deaths."

When it began, the Pilot was originally just for the steamfitter/pipefitter trade, but was expanded in September 2012 to include six additional occupations. On July 31 of this year, the Pilot was ended as part of the government's changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker program, but work permits already granted under the program are still in place and an estimated 2,000 workers brought in through the pilot are still at Alberta worksites.

"When it comes to safety issues, the government shouldn't just be waiting around for these work permits to expire," McGowan said. "If there are workers on these sites who are not trained, and who pose a risk to their co-workers, the government needs to act."

Unlike other Temporary Foreign Worker programs, the Alberta Pilot for Occupation-Specific Work Permits did not require employers to fill out Labour Market Impact Assessments - the documents that are supposed to ensure that there was an attempt to hire Canadians to do the work. Because of this lack of paperwork, it has been difficult until now for the public to obtain information about how the program is being misused.

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