It was unlike any Labour Day Ryan Louis had experienced.
As hundreds of pipefitters and welders arrived at Husky Energy’s Sunrise project for their weeks-long shifts, a company spokesperson told the crew of approximately 270 this would be their last.
An equal number of temporary foreign workers brought in by Saipem, a non-union Italian company specializing in oil and gas construction projects.
Over the next 30 days, dozens of temporary foreign workers from Mexico, Ireland, Portugal and Italy were arriving at the site 60 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, waiting for turnover.
By Sept. 27, the original workers —all contractors with Toronto-based Black & MacDonald— were gone.
“Layoffs are pretty standard when there’s no work to be done, but there was plenty of work for us to do out there,” said Louis, a commuter from Napanee, Ont. and an active member of Pipefitters Local 488 in Edmonton. “Plain and simple, a bunch of qualified Canadian citizens who needed work were replaced.”
According to Husky Energy spokesperson Mel Duvall, Saipem Canada is the general contractor for construction of the site’s Central Processing Facility.
Saipem had given Black & MacDonald contracts to complete the project’s first phase, and with construction finishing, Duvall says Black & MacDonald reduced their workforce.
However, several Black & MacDonald contractors dispute these claims. Over a dozen employees that were interviewed all alleged Saipem and Black & MacDonald were involved in payment disputes, and as a result, Black & MacDonald withdrew.
One Black & MacDonald contractor, who could not give his name for seniority reasons, says Saipem let the workers go because unionized labour was too costly.
Both Saipem and Black & MacDonald did not answer repeated calls for comment about the issue, and these claims could not be verified. Duvall did not comment on the use of temporary foreign workers at Sunrise.
Louis says many contractors he worked with at Sunrise have already found work elsewhere in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland. However, some are still struggling.
“We were told when I started around April, just after Easter, that we would be good until September or October,” said Reg Fougere, a Nova Scotian pipefitter who was working at the site.
“There was a lot of work there, some of us thought we’d get an extension or new contract there, or they’d at least bring in other Canadians who need work,” he said. “Well thanks to Saipem, we’re Canadians who need some work.”
Fougere also witnessed several foreign workers operate equipment unsafely or wander into restricted areas without protective gear. Fougere says many did not understand the Alberta labour code or basic warning labels on hazardous materials.
When he brought his concerns about the qualifications of the temporary foreign workers to Husky, Fougere says they fell on deaf ears.
“Just to get through the door, we need certificates and licences up the ying-yang like Red Seal certification. It let’s them know that as Canadians, we’re all qualified to the standards,” he says. “These guys coming in, how the hell can they get in without our qualifications? Or how do we know how good their qualifications from other countries are?”
Temporary Foreign Worker program constant ire of Alberta's labour movement
According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, there were 338,189 temporary foreign workers living in Canada as of Dec. 1, 2012, with nearly 70,000 living in Alberta.
To compare, approximately 257,515 immigrants were welcomed into Canada in 2012 as residents. CIC figures show there were only 101,098 temporary foreign workers in Canada in 2002.
The program's supporters in the federal and provincial government argue the legislation is intended for employers to fill short-term labour or skill gaps. Legislation says they must prove they were unable to find skilled Canadians or permanent residents to do those jobs.
However, groups such as the Alberta Federation of Labour argue the program is being abused and poorly enforced, particularly in the construction industry.
This is just a way to get cheap labour on this project. I think Canada has enough skilled workers or can train/retrain people we have which is a better investment than a welfare or EI check.