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April 3, 2017

New-style trade deals have ominous implications for the future

The following was published April 3 in the Hill Times, a leading Ottawa newspaper read by MPs, reporters, lobbyists and government officials.

By Joseph Maloney

The Trudeau government's signing of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with the European Community marked an ominous departure in Canada's approach to trade deals with other countries.

Not only is CETA about trade; it promotes wholesale economic integration. As part of that integration, it allows European companies to bring in their own employees if they should win bids on building or maintaining industrial or commercial facilities. Entire projects could be built by foreign workers.

That's a threat to the jobs of hundreds of thousands of Canadians who work in the construction industry. If it starts to happen on a widespread scale, it will make past controversies over the Temporary Foreign Workers Program look like tempests in a teapot.

CETA encourages the parties in both Europe and Canada to set up Mutual Recognition Agreements so that the skills of a European tradesperson are recognized in Canada. A European worker who is recognized in one of the skilled trades would not have to complete a Canadian apprenticeship and could begin to work on Canadian projects with little if any supplementary training.

That approach has already caused fatalities in Canada. Ten years ago, an accident in the oil sands killed two Chinese workers and injured five others. They were building a storage tank - a job that should be done by qualified Canadian Boilermakers - when the structure collapsed. An investigation found the workers, part of an imported Chinese labour force, were not only unqualified but couldn't read blueprints or speak English.

A cross-Canada trail of misery marks injuries and deaths at industrial facilities where unqualified workers tried to perform work that should have been done by properly trained and accredited tradespeople. That's one of the reasons Canada has the world's strictest apprenticeship standards in my own trade.

Canadian working conditions are much different from those in Europe. While Europe has tough weather, it's nothing like working in northern Alberta in winter. Our climate is one of the factors that demand special training and strict qualifications.

Now the federal government is in preliminary talks with China, which, according to reports, has already demanded the same right to bid on Canadian projects and import Chinese workforces to build them.

Trying to compete against European workers from countries where wages are less than half of those earned by Canadians will be tough enough. Attempting the same against people who earn a lot less than that will be well nigh impossible.

There will be the usual arguments against protecting Canadian jobs and living standards by those who use the rhetoric of competitiveness to disguise their efforts to increase profits at any cost. But increasingly, Canadians realize that people living on poverty-level wages cannot sustain a prosperous economy that benefits and promotes the middle class.

If Canadians can't count on our own federal government to promote our common economic interests, what hope is there for the future of our children and grandchildren?