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Alberta trial for companies in Chinese oilsands worker deaths delayed again

By By John Cotter, The Canadian Press
| www.cos-mag.com

EDMONTON — The trial into the deaths of two temporary foreign workers at an Alberta oilsands project has been delayed for a year because a Chinese company is arguing it shouldn't be included in the case.

Sinopec Shanghai Engineering Co., SSEC Canada and Canadian Natural Resources face 53 charges under the province's Occupational Health and Safety Act.

The companies involved in the project were to go to trial Oct. 3, but the case has been put over until Oct. 1, 2012 — more than five years after the workers died on the job.

Alberta Justice says Sinopec has been arguing it has no legal presence in Canada and is taking its fight to the Court of Appeal. Canadian Natural Resources asked for the trial to be delayed because it wants Sinopec to be included in the case. The Crown objected to the delay, but the judge granted it.

"Canadian Natural Resources' request is based on them wanting to be tried jointly with a third company, Sinopec Shanghai Engineering Ltd.," Alberta Justice spokesman David Dear said Thursday.

"Their (Sinopec's) claim is that they shouldn't be considered involved in the proceedings. A decision on that aspect of the case is expected following a hearing at the Court of Appeal on Oct. 8."

Genboa Ge and Hongliang Lui were killed April 24, 2007, when the oil tank they were working on near Fort McMurray collapsed. Other workers were injured as well.

Court documents show Sinopec repeatedly missed court appearances on the charges in 2009. An official with SSEC Canada, which is 90 per cent owned by Sinopec, was eventually served a summons to appear. Sinopec then hired a lawyer and began arguing it should not be included in the case.

A provincial court judge ruled in Sinopec's favour in 2010, but the Crown successfully challenged that ruling earlier this year in Court of Queen's Bench.

In his ruling Justice Sterling Sanderman said Sinopec shall be part of the case and wrote if the Chinese state-owned company does not attend, the Crown can apply to proceed with a trial without it.

"If Sinopec Shanghai does not attend at the time scheduled for the trial of this matter, service has been effected and the Crown would be in a position to apply for an ex parte trial pursuant to Section 800 of the Criminal Code of Canada."

Sinopec is challenging that ruling in the Court of Appeal.

Officials with Canadian Natural Resources could not be reached for comment on its reasons for wanting Sinopec included in the trial.

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, called the five-year delay in dealing with the case outrageous.

He said Alberta is preparing for another influx of temporary foreign workers, including from China, in the oilsands and related construction projects. McGowan said the government needs to learn lessons from what happened during the last boom.

"Those lessons can't be learned when important cases like this one keep being delayed," he said Thursday. "If those lessons aren't learned, then I am very worried that we're are going to see the same kind of tragedies unfold again."

The federation estimates there are currently about 58,000 temporary foreign workers in Alberta. Federal records show employers filed more than 42,885 applications last year to bring in more.

McGowan said it's time for the federal government to bring in tougher rules to ensure the workers are protected using the same safeguards applied to Canadian employees, including how they are paid.

"We have to make sure that these foreign construction firms, whether they come from China or other countries, are not importing Third World labour and health and safety practices along with the temporary foreign workers that they use."

McGowan suggested that had the two Chinese men who died in 2007 been Canadian citizens, the case would have been dealt with much more quickly.

The Christian Labour Association of Canada also expressed concern Thursday about the trial's postponement.

"CLAC is disappointed with the delay," wrote union spokesman Alex Pannu in an email. "We want to see this case come to a conclusion and bring closure for the families of the deceased."

In April, the Alberta government announced it was giving up hope that the Chinese government had repaid 132 temporary workers who had $3.17 million in wages taken from their bank accounts in 2007 while they were on the job in the province.

The case involved Chinese employees from companies affiliated with Sinopec Shanghai Engineering. They were working at a Canadian Natural Resources project.

One of the workers filed a lawsuit in Canada over his share of the missing money, but dropped it when he returned home to China.

Legal documents filed by Sinopec say the worker gave permission for the money to be taken from his account.

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