B.C. and Alberta labour unions push for TFW program reforms

Labour unions in B.C. and Alberta are pushing for reforms to the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program, as a judicial review begins in Federal Court into the process that allowed HD Mining to hire Chinese nationals at a coal mine in northeastern B.C.

"This judicial review of the HD Mining permits will be the most comprehensive examination of Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker Program ever conducted," said Brian Cochrane, business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 115.

"We know that there are over 300,000 Temporary Foreign Workers employed in Canada today and 70,000 of those in B.C., but we've never seen the internal workings of how the federal government makes decisions on granting work permits to companies requesting them,"

The IUOE and the Construction and Specialized Workers Union (CSWU) Local 1611 unions will be in Federal Court in Vancouver for a judicial review between April 9 and 11.

The judicial review will investigate the process within Human Resources and Services Development Canada (HRSDC) that granted HD Mining permission to import 201 Chinese nationals at the $300 million Murray River underground coal mine, near Tumbler Ridge, B.C.

The unions argue HRSDC failed to ensure there were no Canadians to do the work. In addition, they claim that the TFWs are being offered wages far below prevailing rates.

HD Mining received at least 300 resumes from Canadian citizens or permanent residents, who applied to work at the proposed project.

The company did not hire one Canadian applicant to work at the mine, claiming they were not qualified.

"The documents we have already obtained through our court action clearly show the Temporary Foreign Worker Program is not working for Canadians," said Mark Olsen, business manager of the CSWU Local 1611.

"I suspect that other documents being disclosed for the first time in court this week – likely on Wednesday when we make our arguments – will provide even more evidence that our concerns are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg."

Given all the problems that have already been revealed in this case, Olsen wants the federal government to make several significant changes to the TFW program.

"Available jobs need to go to Canadians first and Canadians need to be skilled up in order to do the work," he said.

"There has to be a real shortage determined and that is where unions come in. Unions should be involved to determine if there is a real shortage."

Once a real shortage is identified, Olsen said the foreign workers have to be brought into the country properly, not by brokers or companies that will exploit them.

Once in Canada, foreign workers need to be paid to the full Canadian wages and benefits standard, he said.

In addition, there needs to be enforcement by the federal and provincial government.

Finally, there needs to be a path toward citizenship.

"That's what needs to happen across the country," said Olsen. "The federal and provincial governments need to get their act together."

After obtaining a list of fast-tracked TFW applications using an Access to Information request, the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) agrees that the problems with HD Mining are just the tip of the iceberg.

The document lists all approved TFW applications in the first eight months of the new Accelerated Labour Market Opinion (ALMO) process.

According to the AFL, more than 2,400 ALMO guest-worker permits were granted to fast-food restaurants, convenience stores and gas stations between April 25 and Dec. 18, 2012.

These permits are supposed to be reserved for highly-skilled employment.

The AFL is calling on the Auditor General of Canada to conduct a full audit of the ALMO approval process.

"Alberta is leading the way in misusing this approval process," said AFL president Gil McGowan.

"This isn't being used as a stop-gap, and it isn't a last resort for employers."

More than 54 per cent (2,640) of the ALMO approvals in the country were for Alberta-based employers. Of these, AFL researchers said more than 58 per cent (1,542) were questionable.

The list of businesses in Alberta who received ALMO approvals included 33 A&W restaurants.

The Journal of Commerce, Monday, Apr. 08, 2013
Byline: Richard Gilbert, staff writer

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