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Iron workers will be rehired as Ottawa promises review

A worker welds some pipes.

Tom Thomson/The Globe and Mail

The dozens of iron workers who were laid off and subsequently alleged they were replaced by temporary foreign workers at an oil sands project in Alberta this week will be rehired, according to the company involved in the controversy.

Roughly 65 iron workers were let go from their construction jobs at the Kearl oil sands mine near Fort McMurray Tuesday. These Ironworkers Local 720 union members allege they were replaced by temporary foreign workers and, in response, turned to the government to investigate and made public complaints Thursday.

Ottawa immediately pledged to examine whether the company that laid them off was in compliance with the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Companies cannot hire temporary foreign workers if qualified Canadians want the jobs. The TFWP is designed to fulfill labour shortages, and cannot be used to drive down costs by hiring cheaper employees from abroad.

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Pacer Promec Joint Venture – a partnership between Pacer Construction Holdings Corporation, and Construction Promec Inc. – on Friday said it will "re-hire Canadians to impacted positions that had been filled with temporary foreign workers."

PPJV, however, believes it still acted properly.

"On behalf of PPJV, I regret that our actions, which we believe are consistent with the legislation, led to the current controversy," Paolo Cattelan, managing partner for the PPJV, said in a statement released Friday. "These temporary workers should have been assigned to other projects where there is an existing labour shortage."

The decision is a win for the union and the Alberta Federation of Labour, which was also involved in the complaint. They lobby to protect Canadian jobs and argue cheaper foreign workers should only be brought in when the jobs cannot be filled domestically.

The laid off union members were working at Imperial Oil Ltd.'s Kearl oil sands mine, but Imperial said it is not tied to hiring decisions because it contracted construction work to PPJV.

PPJV pointed to a subcontractor of its own when explaining the problem. "One of PPJV's subcontractors applied to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program because of a labour shortage for iron workers," PPJV said in the statement. "PPJV's subcontractors followed the necessary process and believe they are in compliance with the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and PPJV will cooperate fully with the Ministry of Labour.

"Going forward, PPJV will use its best efforts to ensure temporary foreign workers fill positions where there is a shortage," the statement said.

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It did not explain what will happen to the new temporary foreign workers. The union members believe their short-lived replacements were being paid about $18 an hour – less than half of what the Canadian employees were making.

Pacer Corporation Group of Companies on Friday issued a statement saying it "has received notification that it is not under investigation by Canada's Ministry of Employment and Social Development."

Nick Koolsbergen, a spokesman for Employment Minister Jason Kenney, said Friday evening: "Departmental officials will continue to review this matter. Our government will not tolerate any abuse of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

"Those who are found to have violated the rules of Temporary Foreign Worker Program will be added to a blacklist and denied the ability to hire temporary foreign workers in the future. Canadians must be first in line for available jobs."

A spokeswoman for Mr. Kenney on Thursday said the original allegations that the iron workers were laid off and replaced with TFWs were "very troubling," and said he would be urgently reviewing the case.

"Our government will not tolerate any abuse of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program," spokeswoman Alexandra Fortier said Thursday. "Our government has recently made reforms to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to ensure that Canadians are first in line for available jobs, and this program remains under review."

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Mr. Kenney has previously said further TFW changes are due in the coming months. This will mark the second time in two years the federal government has made changes to the rules.

Harry Tostowaryk, the business manager at Ironworkers Local 720, said his organization represents about 2,400 other workers.

Vic Nilson is one of the iron workers who was let go on Tuesday. He said the day started like any other, with a safety meeting before heading out to work. The employees heard rumblings that their colleagues on a different shift had been laid off, he said in an interview. At Mr. Nilson's 3:00 p.m. break, the workers were told to stay in the lunchroom. Around 3:15, management laid off the crew, he says. The iron workers gathered their belongings and got on their bus to leave the site. They were "bewildered," 59-year-old Mr. Nilson said.

"This is something that we can't let happen," he said. "Whose job is next?"

Since 2006, Canada has brought in more than 500,000 temporary foreign workers of varying skill under the current legislation. Canada added 1.5 million jobs overall in that period, according to the national Labour Force Survey. Statistics Canada says it's impossible to know how many TFWs are included in that figure.

The federal government last year changed the rules so that the approval to hire foreign workers, known as a Labour Market Opinion, now takes months.

Further revisions, expected in the next two or three months, may introduce a fast-track system for high-skill positions.

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About the Authors

Carrie Tait joined the Globe in January, 2011, mainly reporting on energy from the Calgary bureau. Previously, she spent six years working for the National Post in both Calgary and Toronto. She has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario and a bachelor’s degree in political studies from the University of Saskatchewan. More

Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More

Demographics Reporter

Joe Friesen writes about immigration, population, culture and politics. He was previously the Globe's Prairie bureau chief. More

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