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April 10, 2017

Recognition of training defends jobs in bad trade deals

The following article by IVP Joe Maloney was published in the St. John's Telegram on April 10th.

By Joseph Maloney

What does occupational training have to do with international trade? A lot, if the safety of workers and the public is a concern. Plenty, if you're worried about the employment prospects of thousands of people in Newfoundland and Labrador.

You would think that comprehensive training, in my own Boilermaker and other construction trades, is a reasonable requirement for hazardous occupations with no tolerance for mistakes.

But when Canada signed the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Europe, we opened the door to the wholesale importation of foreign workforces to build and maintain industrial projects like the Hebron and Hibernia platforms.

Under CETA, corporations from all 28 countries in the European Union will be able to bid on large Canadian projects, and bring their workforces with them.

There are several reasons to be concerned about this. Let's consider safety first.

Industrial work sites are complex and hazardous environments. An error in judgment or procedure can be catastrophic in terms of personal injuries and material damage. Boilermakers fit and weld huge tanks and feeder systems that hold explosive gasses and liquids under pressure. A large-scale accident involving toxic or flammable materials is too horrible to even imagine.

Hebron, which employed more than 5,000 workers during peak construction, has been lauded for having one of the best safety records on the planet, thanks to extensive safety training and the excellence of our local workforce.

But what safeguards are in place under CETA to ensure that imported workers receive the same skills and safety training as Canadian tradespeople? It would appear there are none. Mutual Recognition Agreements promoted under the deal will automatically recognize the skills and training of European tradespeople as being the same as their Canadian counterparts. Foreign work crews could be hired at Canadian job sites with little or no additional training.

That approach has proven to be catastrophic elsewhere in Canada. In 2007, an accident involving a storage tank in the oil sands left two workers dead and injured five others. An investigation found that the foreign workforce, imported as a unit from China, lacked qualifications, spoke no English so couldn't read blueprints and had no means of communicating in an emergency.

Equally alarming is the prospect that under CETA, foreign crews could displace capable tradespeople here in Newfoundland and Labrador. Competing against the European labour market will be challenging. In many EU countries, average wages are less than half of ours.

At least under the Temporary Foreign Workers program, the federal government must conduct a Labour Market Impact Assessment to make sure that no Canadians are available to do the work. CETA makes those kinds of tests illegal.

With the winding down of major construction projects, unemployment in Newfoundland and Labrador is expected to reach 17% by 2019. It would be a kick in the pants to lose mining- and oil-industry jobs when the projects come back onstream a few years from now.

CETA will provisionally come into effect on or before July 1. Is it too late to save Newfoundland and Labrador jobs?

CETA allows European states and Canadian provinces to regulate the participation of foreign companies in strategic industries. Many EU states have taken advantage of that provision by designating certain economic sectors as off limits to Canadian workers.

Canadian provinces can do the same. Newfoundland and Labrador can stand up for provincial interests and provincial jobs by legislating protections for key economic sectors not only under CETA, but under any future trade deals, such as the one now being bandied about with China.

And provinces can ensure that only workers trained to our standards and recognized by our authorities can work in certain trades that are key in protecting public and worker safety. That's the least that provincial governments owe to workers who live, work and pay taxes in their jurisdictions.