Foreign worker woes 'tip of the iceberg'
By Renata D'Aliesio
The Calgary Herald (Canada), June 4, 2009
Edmonton — Two-thirds of temporary foreign workers who complained about their working conditions in the past two years in Alberta raised concerns about unpaid wages, new provincial government statistics reveal.
Other high-ranking issues included compensation for overtime, holidays and vacation.
In all, the province fielded 395 complaints from temporary foreign workers in 2007 and 2008,a period during which the pool of these employees rapidly grew, to 57,843 last year from 37,293 in 2007.
Liberal MLA Hugh MacDonald, the party's employment and immigration critic, contends the number of complaints isn't capturing the full picture.
He said he believes many more temporary foreign workers have grievances, but are afraid to speak out. He noted at Canadian Natural Resources' Horizon oilsands site alone, an ongoing provincial investigation has alleged that Chinese contractor SSEC Canada shortchanged about 132 temporary foreign workers from $3China.17 million in wages, overtime and holiday pay over in 2007.
It appears the foreign workers never complained until a double-fatal workplace incident sparked a two-year-long probe of safety and employment standards. Canadian Natural Resources has stepped in to give the province money to pay these workers, some of whom are proving difficult to find.
'There's so many temporary foreign workers employed in this province, unfortunately they do not realize that they have the right to approach an employment standards office,'MacDonald said Wednesday as the legislative session, which began in February, came to an end.
'This report, it's just the tip of the iceberg.'
The provincial Employment and Immigration report, tabled this week in the legislature, doesn't quantify how many of the 261 unpaid wages complaints are significant problems versus administrative misunderstandings.
Employment and Immigration Minister Hector Goudreau said the province has not uncovered other cases of unpaid wages similar in scope to SSEC Canada.
He added the department takes complaints raised by temporary foreign workers seriously and has the authority to lay charges against employers, if warranted.
'On one side, some of the complaints are dismissed because the employee expected more than what the contract had stipulated,' Goudreau said. 'On the other side, there is probably some deliberate moves on behalf of the employers not to pay fully the salaries.'
Goudreau said department statistics show temporary foreign workers are generally no more likely to face contract and safety problems at work than other employees.
MacDonald, however, argues more should be done to make foreign workers aware of their rights.
Xavier Cattarinich of the Calgary Workers' Resource Centre isn't surprised by the number of unpaid wages complaints. The centre has helped dozens of temporary foreign workers navigate unfamiliar work laws.
'These workers are especially vulnerable,' he said.
Cattarinich wants Ottawa to give foreign workers more flexibility to work elsewhere in the country when they lose their jobs. Moreover, he said he thinks these workers should be invited as immigrants instead of temporary workers.