Canadian tradesmen from a huge oilsands construction project are waving a red flag about safety hazards and near misses, which they blame on the use of foreign workers who aren't qualified and can't speak English.

"When you bring in a bunch of workers who are unqualified to do this job it's only a matter of time before you kill someone," said Les Jennings, who was an ironworker supervisor at the Husky Sunrise plant until a few weeks ago, when he quit in frustration.

"People are angry and upset," said journeyman ironworker Johnny Demosten, who is still working at the site. He said many of the foreign workers don't know crane hand signals and other safety precautions.

"If they are journeymen, they are supposed to know the signals. It's pretty dangerous."

There are 344 foreigners — skilled tradespeople and others — currently working on site for the Italian-based company Saipem, under contract to build the multi-billion dollar plant 60 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.

The project is over budget and behind its original schedule.

Hazards cited by inspector

"The errors on that site are repetitive and consistent. Mistakes made over and over," said Ryan Slade, a journeyman electrician contracted by Husky last year, as an on-site quality control inspector.

"You used to feel like you were part of something. Now, you feel you are part of the mess."

Husky Sunrise

The Husky Sunrise site is 60 km north of Fort McMurray, Alta. (CBC)

He said he reported numerous serious concerns about safety and poor workmanship, until, he said, managers told him to stop.

"I keep repeating, 'You are having the same problems over and over' and they said, 'Look, we already know this — don't report it anymore,'" said Slade.

"We will always be vigilant in our safety objectives, and we continue to see steady improvement in results due to stronger alignment amongst all companies on site," Husky spokesperson Mel Duvall said in an email to Go Public.  

"We work closely with site contractors on safety, including initiatives for workers to give direct feedback." 

"Those [Canadian] guys who do stay up there they are going to save Husky's butt — I guarantee it," said Slade. "They are going to save someone's life by catching poor workmanship before it kills someone."

Blow torch scare

For example, Demosten said, he and other workers were horrified when a foreign worker took a blow torch to a propane tank to defrost it. Others intervened to prevent an explosion.

"That would probably have killed him and hurt people around him. That's the kind of things these people are doing," said Demosten.

Temporary Foreign Workers in Oil Patch, Johnny Demosten, Leslie Jennings

Johnny Demosten and Leslie Jennings, journeyman ironworkers in the oilsands, go public about temporary foreign workers hired by Saipem Canada to work at the Husky Sunrise site. (CBC)

The tradesmen also claim several Canadians with better qualifications have been passed over for jobs, while foreign workers from Europe continued to show up.

 "We had probably 60 ironworkers come to take the jobs from Canadians," said Jennings.

Saipem said it can't comment on some of the Canadian workers' allegations without evidence, but, overall, it called the claims "misleading".

It points out, 85 per cent of its workers on site are Canadian. It also said its safety record is as good or better than industry standard.

Company refutes claims

"We continue to make safety a priority at the Sunrise site, with continued focus on safety awareness and training of all our workers," said Saipem spokesperson Erika Mandraffino, in an email from Italy.

"We strongly refute any and all claims of any correlation between any alleged safety violations and any group of workers that we have at the project site."

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Many of the foreigners did arrive without Canadian-standard trade certification, however. Under government rules, they have a year before they must take their test.

"These workers, in my opinion — because I worked with them side by side — they are not at the same level as a Canadian journeyman. Not even close," said Jennings.

He said he assigned some of them to shovel snow, while earning the ironworker rate of $44 an hour.

"Probably 75 per cent of [foreign] ironworkers on site were only at the level of a labourer."

Jennings is angry with Saipem, because it used his name and red seal certification number on paperwork approving 15 foreigners to take their certification test, after he said he made it clear they weren't qualified.

"When I found out about that I called the industrial training centre and I had [the test approvals] cancelled," said Jennings.

A company HR person texted Jennings at the time, saying, "It was a mistake… I am not trying to get you to approve guys you are not comfortable with."

Foreign workers fail tests

Even when they take the test, he said, most fail but are not sent home. They get another shot at a later date, prolonging their time on the job.

"They should be made to write that test the first week they get here to prove they know the material — then if they don't know it they should go home."

Foreign workers at Husky Sunrise

Foreign workers are shown in this still image from video taken by a worker at the Husky Sunrise plant near Fort McMurray.

The union for both the domestic and foreign tradespeople confirmed several foreign workers failed and are getting a second chance.

"If they are failing the test because they can't read it, then that's a concern about their language and what it can mean for safety," said Izzy Huygen, Alberta representative for the Christian Labour Association of Canada.

When more new workers arrived from Portugal in June, Jennings reacted by emailing Saipem several resumes of qualified Canadian journeymen looking for work.

A human resources manager emailed back, saying, "We are not looking for ironworkers as of now."  Then, in July, another crew from Poland showed up, according to several sources.

"Those ironworkers are still on site. They should have been turned around sent back home and replaced with Canadians," said Jennings.

Qualified Canadians available

Jason Mitchell's resume was one of those Jennings submitted. He said Saipem actually offered him work at the time. He quit his other job as a result, but has heard nothing since.

"I was told I was hired and good to go… I never heard any more. Now I am unemployed," said Mitchell.

Saipem logo

344 foreigners are working on-site in Alberta for Italian-based Saipem, which is under contract to build the multi-billion dollar Husky Sunrise plant. (Saipem)

As a test, Demosten recently posted a fake job ad on the web, mirroring Saipem's requirements, to show how many Canadians could have been hired.

His inbox was flooded with 115 applications — most from qualified people — within 14 hours.

One was followed by another email from the applicant's wife, pleading, "Please tell me if he is being considered."

"I felt real bad when I saw that," said Demosten. "More than likely he's sitting at home not working, while there is a foreign worker working."

The federal government rejected several Saipen applications to bring in foreign workers over the last year, because it didn't believe the company couldn't find Canadians for the jobs.

"Employment and Social Development Canada has refused this employer's last nine Labour Market Opinions because the employer was unable to demonstrate that a labour shortage existed or that the employer had made sufficient efforts to hire Canadians," said spokesperson Nick Koolsbergen.

Company gets around gov't refusals

Saipem found other avenues, however. It said some of its current workers came in under a little-known visa option called an "intra company transfer."

The union said the rest came through a pilot project allowing specific trades work in Alberta without federal approval. That program has just been cancelled.

Citizenship and Immigration responded to Go Public's story by indicating the province is responsible for safety and worker qualifications.

Alberta's minister of jobs, skills, training and labour said cases like this need investigation but foreign workers are still needed in the oilsands.

"We shouldn't penalize a whole industry, a whole economy, a whole region because there are some unfortunate circumstances. What we need to do is to get better at investigating those complaints and providing remedy to them," said Kyle Fawcett.

When CBC News asked the federal minister responsible if visas may be revoked in this case and he indicated it's possible.

"We've done it… We have sent people home when their presence here as temporary foreign workers was based on misrepresentation," said Immigration Minister Chris Alexander.

Saipem foreign languages sign

Signs with phrases in foreign languages are up at the Husky Sunrise worksite to help workers communicate with each other.

"We are saying to all employers you will only have access to this program if there's not a qualified Canadian to do the job."

The union said, because of a grievance it filed, the latest crew of new arrivals was pared back from 70 to 20 workers.

"These are widespread concerns," said Nuygen from CLAC. "Safety is definitely one of the top two issues. The other is temporary foreign workers getting jobs ahead of Canadians."

Demosten said foreign workers are still being promoted, however, to higher paying, non-union foreman jobs over him and other certified Canadians.

"People who don't speak English are our bosses. They are telling us what to do and they don't have any idea what to do."

As a result of Go Public's story, the Alberta Federation of Labour is asking the federal auditor general to investigate the use of foreign workers by Saipem at the Husky Sunrise site.


Submit your story ideas

Go Public is an investigative news segment on CBC TV, radio and the web.

We tell your stories and hold the powers that be accountable.

We want to hear from people across the country with stories they want to make public.

Submit your story ideas to Kathy Tomlinson at Go Public

Follow @CBCGoPublic on Twitter