In early February, 65 workers at the Kearl tar sands mine in Northern Alberta were laid off without warning or reason. The workers, highly-skilled tradespeople and members of the Ironworkers Union, contend that their sacking came about because the company operating the mine wanted to hire cheaper labour from Croatia. This is the fate facing workers, even in the highly profitable oil sector, under capitalism today.
The workers at the Kearl mine insist that they were dismissed without just cause, and all of the evidence appears to back up their claim that they were fired simply to make room for temporary foreign workers. Pacer Promec Joint Venture, the employer of the sacked workers, is defending the fact that they are using the scandal-ridden Temporary Foreign Workers Program, stating that they had to in order to remedy a labour shortage of ironworkers! The Croatian workers are receiving just half of the salary of the dismissed Canadian workers.
The federal Ministry of Employment is currently reviewing the situation and insists that abuses of the TFWP will not be tolerated. Pacer Promec has apologized for creating controversy, but remains confident that it will not be found guilty of program misconduct. Pacer Promec is taking advantage of its complex and confusing corporate structure by claiming that only one section of the company, which is not responsible for the operation of the Kearl mine, is under investigation by the government.
However, all of the actions taken by Pacer Promec seem to suggest that the company is trying to do everything in its power to punish its workers and to maximize its bottom line. In an effort to reverse the bad press facing the company, Pacer Promec promised to rescind the hiring of the temporary foreign workers and instead, rehire Canadian workers. But, the company hired a different group of workers than the original fired ones, and at a lower rate of pay than the original group of workers. The company defends this shady decision by claiming that their press release did not directly specify which workers would be rehired. And despite their claims that they are no longer using the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, the Ironworkers Union reports the continued presence of the Croatian workers at the mine site.
Pacer Promec is hardly the only company in Canada exploiting the Temporary Foreign Workers Program in order to pad its financial balance. Last summer, the issue exploded when it was discovered that Royal Bank (RBC) had laid off its information technology (IT) department in order to bring in poorly-paid workers from India. But, the reason why Pacer Promec has come under extreme scrutiny is because it is hammering workers in the oil patch — long presented as a source of secure well-paid jobs for hundreds of thousands of out-of-work Canadians. As the economy declines in Atlantic Canada and other rural areas, many Canadians have been forced to rely on the tar sands for employment. Because of this, oil companies have been able to pressure governments to drop scientific studies, dismantle environmental and safety policies, and to persecute local and indigenous communities in order to generate profit. The federal government has spent over $1.4-billion in subsidies to multinational oil companies and spent tens of millions of dollars in advertising the industry, all in the belief that this is a fair price to pay for secure jobs and high wages.
Pacer Promec’s actions reveal the hypocrisy of the industry and of the government. The replacement of unionized workers by cheaper, temporary labourers reveals that even in the oil patch, secure well-paid jobs are being destroyed in order to benefit the bosses’ profits.
There can be a danger that the blame for these lost jobs will be misplaced. The replacement of Canadian workers by foreign workers may foster xenophobia, and subsequently distract the workers from the real reason they were dismissed. Foreign workers did not steal these jobs; the jobs were given to them by bosses seeking to further lower workers’ wages in order to increase corporate profits. The exploitation perpetrated by companies does not recognize borders, nor distinguish between nationalities. We do not care where the workers come from; the issue is that workers are being mistreated and the fact that they come from different countries is being used by the bosses to degrade wages and working conditions. The line of national citizenship that separates the replaced workers from their replacements is fictitious, and serves only to distract the workers from their true enemy — capitalist exploitation. The labour movement must do their utmost to not divide workers along national lines, and to fight for good jobs, good wages, and good benefits for all workers, regardless from where they were born. The workers must shatter all false divides of race and nationality, and unite in common struggle.
As conditions get worse, workers will become increasingly sceptical that the oil companies are acting in their best interests, and will begin to seek a way out of the current situation. The solution is to demand that all oil workers, both Canadian and foreign-born, must be treated equally and must have access to secure, well- paid union jobs. We must level up and not level down. We need to ensure that corporate profits do not trump the needs and demands of the working class and the environment. Alberta will not remain immune to the crisis of capitalism and we must be prepared for the sharpening of the class struggle in the oil patch.