Alberta To Scout German Workers—Critics Call Foul As Jobless Ranks Swell At Home

Alberta to scout German workers
Critics cry foul as jobless ranks swell at home

Renata D'aliesio
Calgary Herald
Published: Sunday, February 15, 2009

Despite a weakening economy and mounting job losses, Alberta government staff will travel to Germany next month to recruit foreign workers for the construction, transportation and hospitality industries.

Alberta is one of five provinces attending the job fairs in Essen and Leipzig. In the past, as many as 20 companies have joined the province on the trip. This time, only a single Edmonton firm looking to hire five cabinetmakers plans to attend.

Alberta's slumping economy –pummelled by low commodity prices and a global credit crunch — didn't dissuade the province from returning to the job fairs. Instead, Employment and Immigration spokeswoman Janice Schroeder said the government has altered its message from previous years, when many Alberta employers were desperately short of workers.

“We'll be talking about keeping Alberta on the radar. If you're thinking of moving for work, maybe not this year, certainly keep us in mind.”

The cost of sending Alberta government staff from its U. K. office wasn't available.

Any price is a waste of tax-payer dollars, said Liberal MLA Hugh MacDonald.

With a rising unemployment rate of 4.4 per cent and job losses totalling 12,800 in the past three months, he argues the province should focus its attention on helping workers at home. He also noted building has slowed dramatically in the oilsands and construction sectors.

“With so many Canadian citizens and landed immigrants already looking for work . . . I think there are enough people interested, willing and able to work here.”

“It just doesn't make any sense,” said MacDonald.

When asked about the Germany trip in the legislature last week, Employment Minister Hector Goudreau suggested he wasn't aware of the recruiting plans.

“I'm not sure that we're out in Germany recruiting construction workers,”he said in question period. “Our priorities are to Albertans first and to make sure that any Albertan that wants to work and is capable of working in a particular occupation will have that option.”

Goudreau then added a caveat: he said the province must be careful it doesn't jeopardize its long-term workforce goals. The Alberta government estimates 400,000 jobs are expected to be created in the next 10 years.

Calgarian Sherrie Lutz's thoughts are on the economic picture today, not a decade from now.

Her husband, a foreman, got his pink slip Friday after working more than six years for a local construction company. She said he was let go while the foreign workers he supervised still have their jobs.

Hearing that the government's staff was headed to Germany to recruit construction workers has added to Lutz's frustration. She thinks the province should have cancelled the trip.

“In light of the mounting unemployment rates that are happening, I'm really disappointed they are going this year,” she said. “For them to be spending money now and trying to recruit workers we don't need now is rather appalling.”

Lutz has started lobbying the federal and provincial governments to tighten rules on temporary foreign workers.She contends the foreign workers should be laid off before Canadian citizens or landed immigrants.

“In times of recession, you need to look after your countrymen first and their interest,” she said.

Alberta has roughly 40,000 temporary foreign workers. Schroeder said international job fairs are about recruiting both temporary workers and provincial nominees who can apply to stay in Canada permanently.

Companies must prove they couldn't find Canadian workers to fill a job before the federal government grants them permission to hire foreigners for up to two years. Some of the contracts state foreign workers must be let go before their Canadian counterparts, but it's only a recommendation, said Evelyn Ackah, an immigration lawyer at the Calgary firm of Fraser Milner Casgrain.

“Once they give that labour market opinion, the employer can do whatever they want to do. There's no enforcement mechanism for Service Canada,” Ackah said.

But Ackah cautions against forcing employers to fire temporary foreign workers first in every circumstance.

She said Ottawa must balance the right of business owners to do what's best for their companies and the larger perception of putting “Canada first.”

She also suggested mandatory layoffs could discourage some foreigners from coming to Canada, which in the long-term needs new immigrants, and some argue temporary workers, to fill jobs vacated by retiring baby boomers.

She noted Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom have aggressive foreign worker recruitment programs.

“If they felt like at any time, if the economy changed or the business was struggling, that they would be the first let go, I'm sure they would look at other countries,” Ackah said.