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Government to review whether workers from Croatia replaced Canadians in oilpatch

FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. - The federal government is investigating an allegation that several dozen Canadians working in Alberta's oilpatch were laid off this week and replaced with foreign workers.

A spokeswoman with Employment Minister Jason Kenney's office said Thursday that he has asked for an urgent review.

The Alberta Federation of Labour said that 65 of its ironworkers were laid off on Tuesday. The workers' paystubs say they were being paid by a company called Pacer Promec Joint Venture.

Federation president Gil McGowan said the employees were immediately dismissed from their jobs at Imperial Oil's (TSX:IMO) Kearl oilsands mine.

"They called the guys into an office, told them that they were gone, and they literally walked past the replacements on the way out," McGowan said.

He alleged the foreign workers from Croatia are making about $18 an hour — half the wage of the Canadians.

A spokesman for Imperial Oil said its contractors make their own hiring decisions.

Melissa Ligertwood with Calgary-based Pacer Corporation said in a statement that the company is not actively recruiting foreign workers and is no longer involved in the Kearl project. She said Pacer is affiliated with Promec Construction.

A woman who answered the phone at Promec in Calgary said no one was available to comment on the matter until Monday.

"The allegations in question are very troubling," Alexandra Fortier, Kenney's press secretary, said in an email.

"Our government will not tolerate any abuse of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Our government has recently made reforms to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to ensure that Canadians are first in line for available jobs, and this program remains under review."

Ottawa brought in new regulations in December to calm fears that foreigners were snatching jobs from Canadians, allowing officials to conduct workplace inspections without warrants and blacklist employers who break the rules.

The move followed a furor over laid-off workers at RBC being ordered to train their replacements — including those who came to Canada on TFW permits. A B.C. mining company was also in hot water for hiring more than 200 Chinese workers after an ad seeking Mandarin-speakers failed to attract Canadian applicants.

McGowan said, despite the changes, the program is being exploited. And the government isn't doing enough to stop it.

"This is not an isolated case. Increasingly, this is becoming business as usual."

McGowan has heard complaints from two other groups of oilpatch workers in the past month that they have been replaced by cheaper, foreign labour.

"The (government) is allowing employers to use the program as a tool to drive down wages and displace Canadians, despite all the reassurances to the contrary."

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. In an earlier version the AFL said the workers worked for Pacer Construction. The AFL now says the workers were paid by Pacer Promec Joint Venture and Pacer Corporation says it is no longer involved with the Kearl project.

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