A large electrical contractor in Saskatchewan is being investigated by the federal government over allegations it laid off dozens of Canadian electricians while keeping temporary foreign workers on the job.

Natalie Cranston was one of about 800 electricians working for Alliance Energy on the expansion of the Agrium potash mine in Vanscoy near Saskatoon.

The young woman is one of 58 Canadian workers who were laid off in May.

"It wasn’t a happy day," she told CBC’s iTeam.

She’s upset that she was forced to go job hunting while 30-40 TFW electricians were still employed.

"Why give our jobs to people who don’t even live here and after the job’s done they’re just going to go back home?" Cranston wondered. "It doesn’t make much sense to me."

Lay off temporary foreign workers first: union

Dennis Perrin, who's the Prairies director for the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) said the union wasn’t happy with Alliance Energy’s decision.

Dennis Perrin CLAC

Dennis Perrin, the prairie director for CLAC says he's disappointed that Canadians were laid off while temporary foreign workers were kept on the job. (CBC)

"Our message has always been that while we do support the temporary foreign worker program in the skills industries where there are demonstrated skills shortages, that the Canadian worker ought to be essentially the first on the job and the last to be laid off," Perrin told CBC.

Perrin said while he's disappointed with this decision, he doesn’t believe Alliance has technically broken the law.

"There is no law that we’re aware of that compels the employer to do what we have asked them to do and that is to lay off the temporary foreign workers first," Perrin said.

But he said the layoffs don't seem to be in keeping with the spirit of the TFW program outlined by Ottawa on its website which says "qualified Canadians … should have first crack at available jobs."

Alliance Energy defends Canadian lay-offs

Alliance Energy declined an interview, but in a written statement it said the company was "in full compliance with the rules of that [TFW] program."

In the email, company president Bryan Leverick said some work the company was planning for had been delayed and as a result "we needed to be able to manage our workforce appropriately."

Leverick defended Alliance Energy’s decision to let go of Canadians while keeping the foreign workers.

"Once these workers are in our employ we treat them fairly and on merit while we work through the ebbs and flows of the project," Leverick explained.

"When we do have to lay off people due to scheduling changes, we do so based on merit."

TFW rules have been unclear

In the spring, when controversy swirled around the TFW program, employment minister Jason Kenney regularly insisted "Canadians must always be first in line for available jobs." 

Natalie Cranston

Natalie Cranston is upset that she was forced to search for a job while 30-40 TFW electricians were still employed. (CBC)

But a professor of industrial relations at the University of Regina said the "Canadians first" policy was populist but toothless rhetoric.

"The ‘Canadian first’ moniker is simply just a public relations design," argued Andrew Stevens. "It has no meaning."

Stevens pointed out that when Alliance Energy brought foreign workers into the country it had to prove to the federal government that there weren’t enough Canadian electricians available.

Stevens said the fact that workers had to be laid off at a later time due to a change of plans may not violate the rules around TFWs.

"So it’s more ‘Canadians first’ when it comes to recruiting new workers," Stevens explained.  "Not so much when it comes to… the process of firing or laying off employees."

Ottawa changes the rules

Ottawa has acknowledged that at the time Alliance hired its TFWs the rules around layoffs weren’t clear enough. 

However, it now says thanks to changes introduced in the spring the rules are much more clear.

In June, Kenney unveiled a massive overhaul of the TFW program aimed at addressing abuses of foreign and Canadian workers.

The changes followed a series of CBC stories highlighting problems across the country.

The new rules make companies accessing the program promise that the foreign workers won't ever hurt Canadian job prospects.

Employers will have to sign a declaration that says the hiring of temporary foreign workers "will not lead to job loss or reduction in work hours for any Canadian or permanent resident during the period of employment for which the work permit is issued."

Ottawa said even though the rules were less clear prior to June, when Alliance Energy hired its temporary foreign workers, it is still pursuing an investigation.

It says, "if any employer is found to have broken the rules of the program they will face consequences."