BY RICHARD GILBERT - The local ironworkers union in Alberta is angry and upset that more than 60 of its members were laid off at the Kearl oilsands construction project in northern Alberta this week and replaced with Croatian temporary foreign workers (TFWs).
“How would you feel?” asked Ironworkers Local 720 business manager Harry Tostowaryk.
“You work hard every day while living away from your family to collect a paycheque. Then you get treated like this. I can’t believe it. This is Canada.”
According to Tostowaryk, a group of 65 ironworkers were laid-off on Feb. 4 by Pacer-Promec Joint Venture (PPJV), a partnership between Alberta-based Pacer and Quebec-based Promec.
The laid-off ironworkers had been involved in the construction of a slurry preparation building and an ore preparation building, as well as installation work on a conveyor belt system.
The ironworkers had about four to six months of work left.
Tostowaryk and other managers at Local 720 are not only upset about the lay offs, they are angry about the way PPJV has behaved during the whole process.
“Everything came to a head on Tuesday (Feb. 4), when the 65 ironworkers were called into the lunchroom. They were told their services were no longer needed and they were being laid off,” said George Papineau, business manager with the Ironworkers Local 720.
“They were told they are being replaced by ironworkers, who are temporary foreign workers from Croatia.”
The ironworkers were told to get their tools before the meeting. Then, they were put on a bus and taken back to the camp, where they make arrangements to go home.
As the ironworkers left the site, they could see some of the temporary foreign workers going through orientation.
In response PPJV made a statement on Feb. 7 that said it will re-hire Canadians for the positions filled by the TFWs.
PPJV said one of its subcontractors applied to the TFW program because of a labour shortage for iron workers. The statement went on to say that PPJV’s subcontractors followed the necessary process and believe they are in compliance with the TFW program.
“On behalf of PPJV, I regret that our actions, which we believe are consistent with the legislation, led to the controversy,” said Paolo Cattelan, managing partner for the PPJV. “These temporary workers should have been assigned to other projects where there is an existing shortage.”
On Feb. 12, Local 720 reported that Pacer contacted the union and requested 36 ironworkers to come back to the Kearl site.
However, these workers are not going to be the same ironworkers, who were laid off. For this reason, Tostowaryk said the PPJV made the statement to fool the public.
He said there are at least 35 TFWs on site, with 17 arriving on Feb. 11.
Local 720 contacted Human Resources and Skills Development Canada and requested that an investigation be undertaken.
“Earlier today (Feb. 7), department officials reached out to Edmonton Ironworkers’ Union Local 720 and were advised by union officials that all of the affected ironworkers have received offers of employment from other projects in the area,” said Alexis Conrad, director general of the Temporary Foreign Worker Directorate in a statement. “The Department continues to review this matter on an urgent basis.”
In particular, the ironworkers want to find out how the system failed to ensure there were no Canadians available or already doing the work.
Papineau said union contractors in Alberta are concerned about how this incident will affect their ability to source manpower using the temporary foreign worker program.
“They (union contractors) are following all the rules and are upset that a contractor has secured manpower, without jumping through all the required regulatory hoops,” he said. In addition, Papineau said the TFWs are being paid less than half of what the Canadian workers were getting.
“There is a rumour that the Croatian workers are getting paid $18 per hour,” he said.
“We are trying to confirm that right now.”