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Union group says Canadians who lost jobs to foreign workers shows system broken

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FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. - The federal government says dozens of workers laid off in Alberta's oilpatch have jobs again, but a labour group says that's not the case and it points to a broken temporary foreign worker system.

Earlier this week, the government announced it was investigating whether the 65 workers at Imperial Oil's (TSX:IMO) Kearl project had been replaced with workers from Croatia at half the pay.

An official with the Employment and Social Development Department said Friday all of the laid-off workers have received job offers on "other projects in the area."

However, Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said not all have received offers.

The company at the centre of the controversy, Pacer Promec Joint Venture, also issued a news release saying it would rehire Canadians to positions that had been filled by temporary foreign workers. The statement was vague and didn't say if the company would rehire the people they laid off or what would happen with the Croatian employees.

McGowan said the company had not contacted the Edmonton Iron Workers Union about rehiring the laid-off Canadians.

The company's managing partner, Paolo Cattelan, said in the release that a subcontractor brought in the foreign workers, and thought it had followed the rules of Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

"I regret that our actions, which we believe are consistent with the legislation, led to the current controversy," Cattelan said.

"These temporary workers should have been assigned to other projects where there is an existing labour shortage. Going forward, PPJV will use its best efforts to ensure temporary foreign workers fill positions where there is a shortage."

The federal Employment minister's office said an investigation into the case will continue.

"Our government will not tolerate any abuse of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program," said spokesman Nick Koolsbergen.

"Those who are found to have violated the rules of Temporary Foreign Worker Program will be added to a blacklist and denied the ability to hire temporary foreign workers in the future. Canadians must be first in line for available jobs."

Ottawa brought in new regulations in December to calm fears that foreigners were taking jobs from Canadians.

McGowan said what happened to the workers is not isolated case. He has received complaints about other Canadians losing their jobs to foreign workers.

He wants the federal government to revamp its foreign worker program. And he wants a royal commission to examine the whole issue.

"It's simply not good enough for the employer to say, 'Sorry, we're going to hire the workers back,'" said McGowan.

"What's happened here is that they got caught with their hand in the cookie jar. And the bigger concern is that if the rules don't change, and the federal government doesn't get really serious about enforcing new and more aggressive rules, then we're going to see this kind of situation repeated over and over again."

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