23 June 2008

Are Chinese labour practices creeping into Canada?

Everyone knows why China appeals to corporations seeking a site to manufacture their goods -- cheap labour. Coerced labour actually. Chinese workers are spared the burdens of freedom of speech and freedom of association and are, therefore, also spared the burden of forming independent labour unions and negotiating their working conditions. They are at the mercy of their employers. China has labour laws, indeed it introduced a package of new ones this year, but government officials are notoriously susceptible to bribery or indifference so the value of such protection is questionable.

Now it seems the exploitation of Chinese workers has crossed the Pacific and appeared in Alberta. In April, 2007, two temporary foreign workers from China were killed on the job at Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.'s oilsands project north of Fort McMurray. While looking into safety issues, investigators talked to the men's fellow workers and discovered they weren't receiving the money they were earning. The Edmonton Journal followed up and learned from the widows of the men killed they were only getting about 12 per cent of the men's wages.

Apparently the proper amounts were paid into the employees' bank accounts but the money never showed up in China. Coincidentally, the workers' employer, the state-owned Sinopec Shanghai Engineering Company, had signing authority on the workers' accounts.

Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. has since canceled its contract with Sinopec and its 120 workers have returned to China. Whether or not they will ever get their money remains to be seen. David Liu, commercial consul at the Chinese consulate in Calgary, said he will look into the matter and make sure Sinopec is following the law. Let's hope he does because apparently not much can be done at this end. Alberta's minister of employment and immigration, Hector Goudreau, admits "We cannot enforce payments or deduction agreements that are outside our jurisdiction."

The temporary worker program has merit. It provides badly-needed labour for Canadian industries and a chance for foreign workers to earn some real money. It is also ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous employers. We can control exploitation in Canada but, as Minister Goudreau freely admits, we are limited to what we can do about exploitation by foreign employers such as Sinopec who operate out of countries where ripping off workers is standard procedure. Nonetheless, we are obligated to do what we can, like closely monitoring the money trail to ensure workers get what they earn. That Sinopec was allowed to dip into its employees' bank accounts is simply outrageous.

With thousands of temporary foreign workers expected to arrive in Alberta this year, this is no small problem. They are owed fair treatment here regardless of how they are treated at home. A good start would be to mandate they be employed directly by Canadian companies and that they be members of strong, effective unions. It's bad enough Canadian workers can be coerced into accepting lower wages by companies exploiting labour elsewhere, we don't need to bring the exploitation into the country.

No comments:

Post a Comment