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February 26, 2014

Temporary foreign workers key to LNG development

Please Note: The following appeared in the Vancouver Province Newspaper on February 26th 2014.

By Joseph Maloney, International Vice-President

The growing controversy over who will benefit from liquefied natural gas (LNG) development is being portrayed by some as a fight between the legitimate aspiration of Canadians for jobs and the threat of a flood of low-paid foreign workers.

It doesn't have to be that way.

The federal government's Temporary Foreign Workers program has proven to be one of the most controversial in recent memory. The intent of the program is laudable: to help projects that are important to the Canadian economy stay on track with trained, skilled workers who are not available in Canada.

Unscrupulous companies have perverted the intent of the program by trying - all too successfully, in too many cases - to sneak lower-paid workers into the country to replace their better-compensated Canadian counterparts under the guise of a labour shortage.

The questionable practices extend into service-industry sectors like fast food and finance, where no one can pretend to ignore the long lineups of Canadians looking for work.

But LNG development is a different matter. Some workers on these projects will need years of experience and the right qualifications to perform highly technical, skilled jobs involved in constructing and maintaining the huge LNG facilities that are being planned.

We're expanding our intake programs as quickly as we can to train new Boilermakers, but even if we could double our number overnight, it takes four years to train a skilled worker in our own or other skilled crafts.

If anyone wants a BC-first hiring policy, it is our union and our counterparts in the construction trades. We expect that residents of British Columbia will have first shot at these jobs, followed by workers from other parts of Canada.

But if enough skilled workers aren't available, projects can be delayed or even cancelled. This is a situation that will not be good for our members or anyone else. That's why we have designed our own very successful Temporary Foreign Workers program.

If - and only if - there are no Canadians available for priority work, our union brings qualified Boilermakers from other countries to work on projects here. They get the same compensation, including benefits, as our Canadian members. There is no financial incentive for our contractors to import foreign workers to replace Canadians.

We have done considerable research on which countries most closely match Canada for training and qualifications. As a result, we have developed a pool of qualified Boilermakers from the US and Ireland and are continuing to seek out new areas where work practices and safety considerations are closest to Canadian standards.

Our foreign-workers program does not exploit our colleagues from overseas. We've never charged commissions on the work we find for our TFWs, nor are they charged for their transportation and accommodation. We have heard too many stories of unscrupulous labour brokers and the almost snakehead-like way they exploit these workers.

We support efforts such as the provincial working group that brings the government and unions to the table to talk about how to provide the best job opportunities for British Columbians and Canadians..

Their efforts will be helped by the recent tightening of regulations in the federal Temporary Foreign Workers program. The intent of these reforms has served to bring the program back to its original goals. But the federal government, in response to complaints from some businesses, is moving to relax the regulations.

If the federal government goes too far in backtracking on its reforms, it runs the risk of proving its critics right and turning the program into a political issue that will destroy its effectiveness and continue to leave Canadians with severe skilled-labour shortages at a time when our economy is only beginning to show signs of life.

In the not-too-distant future, we may not need temporary foreign workers. We're expanding our intake programs and we're recruiting new apprentices. Our trade is an excellent career choice for young Canadians and we encourage them to join our numbers.

In the meantime, our union's Temporary Foreign Worker program is doing what it's supposed to, as it has been all along. If they're wise, governments, business and unions will continue to support the judicious use of skilled foreign workers to fill temporary skills gaps in the Canadian economy.