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Unionized staff wash windows at the airport in Fort McMurray, Alta. The airport is ending its contract with the union to cut expenses as flights to the oil-sands hub have dropped dramatically.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

This article is part of a year-long Globe project about Fort McMurray, Alta., which has come to be the emblem of Canada's energy sector, and all the issues that surround it.

The Fort McMurray airport is replacing in-house cleaning staff at its new terminal with a private contractor that the employees' union warns will use temporary foreign workers to keep costs down.

The airport authority, which runs the $258-million terminal that opened last year, said the union has been aware of the privatization plans for months. It said it needs to cut expenses as the crude-price collapse has crimped business, with the number of flights to the oil-sands hub dropping dramatically.

Twenty-four workers, represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees, were given notice Thursday they will lose their jobs in June. The authority has hired Bill's General Cleaning Services, a local contractor, for the custodial work.

Bill's General Cleaning is known to use temporary foreign staff, and has a sister company that recruits such workers, the union said. It is seeking confirmation on whether any or all of the replacement workers will fall into the often contentious category, said Marle Roberts, CUPE Alberta's president.

"To be fair to the airport authority, they may still be asking those questions," Ms. Roberts said. "Our red flags are that we're not gaining any answers to the question that we've asked."

The unionized workers earn $28 per hour as spelled out in their collective agreement, which runs to 2017. On its website, Bill's General Cleaning is advertising for light-duty cleaning positions that pay $14.50 an hour.

Bill Asefa, the company's president and chief executive officer, said in an e-mail that he is out of the country until the end of the month, and would not comment until he returns.

Fort McMurray, which had boomed until late last year, has relied heavily on Canada's temporary foreign worker program to fill lower-wage jobs as its unemployment rate hovered below 4 per cent. Last year, amid criticism the system was rife with abuse, Ottawa announced businesses had to get down to a maximum TFW ratio of 10 per cent of total staff by 2016, a move that worried local businesses struggling in an overstretched labour market.

(What is the temporary foreign worker program? Read The Globe's easy explanation)​

With crude prices down by half since last summer, oil-sands activity has slowed, creating a new set of economic worries as thousands of workers directly and indirectly employed by the energy industry have been laid off. At the airport, overall traffic is down by 6 per cent in the past two months, and charter flights – on which oil and construction workers are brought in from around the country – have fallen by 25 per cent, said Scott Clements, president and CEO of the Fort McMurray Airport Authority.

Mr. Clements declined to say how much the airport will save by privatizing cleaning, but stressed the amount is "material." The authority has hired Bill's General Cleaning in other parts of its site.

"He's a very high-performance operator and he follows all rules and regulations in terms of how he operates with employees," Mr. Clements said. "The temporary foreign worker program exists, it's got its regulations, and companies, of course, have to follow them to be legal, and he does that."

The union contract has language that allows the employer to replace the in-house workers before the agreement's expiry if it can present a legitimate business case, something Mr. Clements said he has done. The union questions his numbers.

The airport authority has worked with the union to make sure the workers losing their jobs will be treated "equitably," and is recommending that the contractor hire them, it said.

That offer rings hollow with Kathy LeBlanc, one of the workers handed a pink slip on Thursday. She worked four 12-hour shifts each week cleaning bathrooms and the food court for the $28-per-hour wage she said is necessary to meet the cost of living in Fort McMurray. "Do the same amount of work for half the price?" said Ms. LeBlanc, 46. "No. Anybody that would do that would have to be foolish."

According to Alberta government statistics presented by the union, the average cost of living in the northern Alberta city is $65,000 a year, more than twice the amount offered by Bill's General Cleaning, before paycheque deductions.

Ms. LeBlanc and her husband moved to Fort McMurray from New Brunswick in 2012 to be close to their daughter and grandchildren. She said she hopes the cost-cutting at the airport ends with Thursday's layoffs. Her husband works there as an air maintenance technician. "If he loses his job," she said, "we'll have to ask for help to go home."