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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Quebec Welder Firing is About Safety and Literacy, Not Discrimintion

The recent “firing” of the Quebec Ironworker for failing to pass a safety exam in the English language is being misinterpreted as to what is really about and what is really going on.

This is not an example of a human rights abuse. Nor is it the old chestnut of the west being anti French language. I am old enough to remember the mantra about bilingualism as being French being shoved down our throats. The ghosts of those old attitudes seem to emerge out of this incident. This situation is nothing to do with any of that.

What this is actually all about is safety and literacy. If the reverse were true, say in an iron oar mine in rural French speaking Quebec, and a unilingual English speaking worker could not pass a safety test in French, in that setting, he ought not to be hired either. If you are working in a complex and dangerous environment and you can’t read the safety procedures or the operations manuals to deal effectively with emergencies and other non-standard events, then you are a danger to yourself and to co-worker.

The media stories in defense of this worker has been that he had worked for the same sub-contractor in the area but not on an oils sands site for a few months before without supervision, problems or incidents. We do not know what he was doing and have no reason to doubt his work ethic and skills. If he was doing straight non-critical welding in standard circumstances that did not involve integration with other large project aspects or inherently dangerous circumstances, I see no problem. I also see no comparison to that circumstance to the complex and dangerous Suncor work situation, which he was trying to qualify for n passing a safety exam. We do routine drug testing and criminal checks and why not literacy competency testing of employees for safety purposes?

The working language at Suncor is English but that is not the only determining factor. I understand another project has a significant number of Chinese workers on site under a subcontract with a company from the Peoples’ Republic of China. I understand they are working on installing specific projects parts that were manufactured in China. The working language for them is undoubtedly going to be Mandarin. They can be held responsible for site safety requirements for all their workers because there are enough of them and they are involved in a specific aspect of the overall project. Same will likely be the case for the Synenco project and their Upgrader because they are 40% owned by the PRC. Sufficient numbers of Mandarin speakers working on specific identifiable project aspects will justify safety testing in that language.

The real issue here is the dirty little secret that in Canada our low literacy levels are astonishing. We have statistics to show our literacy rates are so low in the nation, (Alberta actually being marginally the highest in the country), that some 40% of Canadians are still learning to read instead of reading to learn. Can you believe it? It is true.

This is not only a competitiveness and productivity killer; it can be a human killer too. Work crews with insufficient literacy skills are a danger to themselves and co-workers.

Premier Stelmach has recognized this issue and has delegated the challenge to improve literacy in Alberta to the Minister of Advanced Education and Technology. A good start to a serious problem! Literacy Alberta has developed a proposal for a literacy policy for Alberta that is working its way through the political policy making process. It is worth going to their site to give it a read.