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NEWS: Company fined for deaths, but use of ‘foreign’ workers explodes under Harper

A court has ruled that SSEC Canada Ltd. pay $1.5 million in penalties for the deaths of two Chinese temporary foreign workers at the tar sands in northern Alberta. The Canadian Press reports, “The men died in 2007 at Canadian Natural Resources’ Horizon project near Fort McMurray when an oil storage tank they were building collapsed. …SSEC Canada is the Canadian subsidiary of Sinopec Shanghai Engineering Company Ltd. The case involved a total of 53 charges involving three different companies, including Calgary-based Canadian Natural Resources and Sinopec. Charges against Sinopec were withdrawn. All 29 charges against CNRL were stayed, meaning the government can reactivate them at any time over one year.”

In an April 2009 campaign blog we noted – Fort McMurray Today reports, “Alberta Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) announced 53 charges yesterday in connection to the April 24, 2007, accident that (killed two workers and) injured four other workers, two seriously, at the Canadian Natural Resources Horizon project, about 75 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. Twenty-nine charges were laid against CNRL, the operator of the Horizon site where the accident occurred. Another 14 charges were laid against contractors SSEC Canada Ltd. and 10 against the Sinopec Shanghai Engineering Company Ltd.” In a November 2009 campaign blog we highlighted – The Globe and Mail reports that Auditor General Sheila Fraser’s report, “took direct aim at the foreign worker program, which brings in an increasing number of often low-skilled workers for jobs ranging from oil sands labourers to construction workers on Olympics facilities and live-in nannies. Workers are particularly vulnerable, she said, given that they often don’t speak English, and owe their status in Canada to their employer.”

BC-Yukon organizer Harjap Grewal has commented on the deaths of the two workers in relation to the Canada-China FIPA, “Racist attitudes drive trade instruments that guarantee exploitative labour for corporations. Migrant worker programs and outsourcing rely on the construction of ‘competing’ workforces based on racial and national identities to provide the social license to justify dramatically lower wages and horrific working conditions to the ‘foreign worker’. The lives of two Chinese migrant workers that died working in the tar sands in 2007 serve as a stark reminder of how demonization of people of colour and other nationals assists the creation of a brutally unsafe working environment that would be deemed unsuitable for Canadian workers.”

And clearly the situation has continued to worsen under the Harper government. Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom writes, “Under Stephen Harper’s federal government, the number of temporary migrant workers allowed into Canada has exploded. In Alberta, some temporary skilled workers serve coffee in doughnut shops. Others heave around beef carcasses in slaughterhouses like the Brooks XL Foods meat-packing plant — the epicentre of an E. coli food scare. In the fruit and vegetable fields of Ontario, the unique skill that temporary migrant workers from the Caribbean or South America bring is their willingness to do back-breaking work for low wages. This government just authorizes more temporary migrant workers, knowing full well that — regardless of their formal rights — they are in no position to complain. It’s one thing for the Harper Conservatives to return us to the status of a resource economy. It is another for them to insist that we become a low-wage resource economy.”

Today’s news tell us that Sinopec Shanghai Engineering Company Canada will pay a $200,000 fine and $1.3 million to a new program teaching temporary foreign workers about their rights. While the Crown prosecutor says this penalty will likely deter further workplace safety deaths, money will not bring back the two workers who lost their lives, and the situation fostered by the Harper government continues unabated.