Workplace death of two Chinese temporary foreign workers still unpunished four years later

With Alberta’s booming tar sands projects poised to drive the number of temporary foreign workers over 100,000, the province’s labour federation is demanding answers in the death of two Chinese construction workers more than four years ago.

The case highlights the vulnerability of temporary foreign workers to exploitation and abuse. BC employs more than 60,000 TFWs and has recorded its own cases of extreme mistreatment. (The impact of the expanding TFW program on Vancouver has been a focus of the Mayor’s Working Group on Immigration.)

Gil MacGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, has been in the forefront of the provincial effort to ensure safety and dignity for temporary foreign workers in the province. He was instrumental in winning provincially-funded help centres for TFWs, a measure BC has refused to implement.

But MacGowan warned last month that the province’s failure, four years later, to prosecute anyone for the workplace death of the two workers was a warning sign of lack of provincial commitment to protect this growing workforce.

MacGowan argues the workers faced extra risks because they had not been trained in Canadian workplace safety standards and practices.

A total of 53 charges were laid in the 2007 incident, which killed two and injured four others. But nothing has resulted from the charges.

The Chinese workers were cheated of wages, as well as denied safe working conditions. In the course of the accident investigation, Alberta officials learned that workers on the project had not been paid more than $3 million in wages.

CNRL, the firm building the Horizon mine, transferred that sum to the Alberta government to pay the Chinese workers after they returned home. More than a year after the accident, Alberta officials were still trying to track the workers down in their home country.

“We cannot ignore or fail to enforce our rules just because these are foreign workers,” says MacGowan. ” The government must be more serious about its responsibility to inspect work sites and enforce its rules, or more workers will die or be hurt.”

Are there similar stories in BC? Hard to say. Unlike Alberta and Manitoba, our province has no program to provide protection to this growing group of residents, not even a phone number to call.