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TFWP reforms may improve worker safety in Fort McMurray

By Erika Beauchesne in Fort McMurray
EcoLog, 8/8/2014 9:56:00 AM

Recent changes to Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) may improve worker safety in Fort McMurray’s oil sands.

The reforms, announced in June 2014, include limiting the number of temporary foreign workers (TFWs) in some workplaces, raising fees employers must pay to use the program, and heftier fines - up to $100,000 - for companies caught abusing the program.

The changes will roll out over the next two years. While provincial governments enforce occupational health and safety regulations, the federal program’s reforms will ripple through those jurisdictions.

Nick Koolsbergen, a spokesperson for federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney, told EcoLog News that Ottawa and provinces will share more information regarding abusers with each other.

"Employers who violate provincial labour laws, health and safety standards or recruiting laws will face greater scrutiny and oversight from Temporary Foreign Worker Program inspectors," says Koolsbergen. “Likewise, the federal government will share information with the provinces and territories on employers who break the rules of the TFWP.”

This exchange will assist federal and provincial governments with their own investigations, says Koolsbergen, especially regarding potential labour, health and recruiting violations.

According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), there were 338,189 TFWs living in Canada as of December 1, 2012.

In regions facing labour shortages where the program is widely used, such as Fort McMurray, reforms are sorely needed to improve safety, Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, told EcoLog News. CIC data reveal there were 70,000 TFWs in Alberta as of 2012.

McGowan hopes Ottawa’s reforms will incentivize employers to place training and safety as higher priorities.

"There is no doubt a relationship between worker safety and the use of TFWs,” says McGowan. “That's not to say all TFWs cause problems on work sites when it comes to safety but there are some obvious challenges.” 

Those challenges include training, knowledge of local labour laws and language barriers. 

"Language plays an important role when it comes to workplace safety. If people don't understand words like 'duck' or 'watch out,' that has safety implications," says McGowan, adding language affects the ability to read manuals and warning labels.

North American workers are also likelier to understand Canadian rights and industry standards.

As an example, McGowan points to a 2007 accident at a Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.’s oil sands project, where two Chinese workers died when a storage tank roof collapsed. Five others were injured.

A Canadian subsidiary of the Chinese state-owned Sinopec pled guilty to charges related to the deaths, plus an additional third charge for failing to ensure the safety of two seriously injured workers.

As punishment, the province issued a fine of $1.5 million, so far the largest one for an occupational health and safety violation in Alberta’s history.

"Canadian construction workers in Alberta were building oil storage tanks for 55 years and there had never been a previous recorded instance of this happening until 2007, which was the front-end of the boom of TFWs," says McGowan.

He also hopes the reforms will affect workers entering the Alberta Occupation-Specific Pilot Project. The program was set up almost exclusively for oil sands work, fast-tracking the hiring of in-demand jobs such as welders, pipefitters, and heavy-duty mechanics.

Koolsbergen acknowledges there has been a significant increase in the number of workers coming to Canada through this provincial agreement.

"The government has given notice that it is changing the existing agreements. As a result, more employers will be subject to the new, more rigorous LMIAs [Labour Market Impact Assessments] before being able to hire temporary foreign workers,” says Koolsbergen. “Any new agreements with provinces and territories will be much more limited in scope." 

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