Minister touched by plight of women who got pregnant hoping to stay in Canada

EDMONTON - Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk has stepped up his push to get permanent status for temporary foreign workers in Alberta after hearing of recent cases of abuse of some Filipina women.

These women were told they could gain permanent status if they had babies here — a false statement — and a handful were impregnated, Lukaszuk said.

Now their lives are complicated — pregnancy will soon force them to leave their jobs and accommodations. At that point, they have to leave Alberta and face going back home with their babies, he said.

The cases were brought to him by Women Changing Together, an organization that helps immigrant women, Lukaszuk said Friday.

"I wasn't surprised, having dealt with many cases of abuse as an MLA, but I was heartbroken," Lukaszuk said. "Over and over again, we see evidence that the prolonged use of temporary foreign workers is not a good thing."

On Friday, Lukaszuk sent a second letter to federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney reiterating Alberta's plea to grant permanent status to the 50,000-plus temporary workers currently in the province.

He also sent a copy of a report by parliamentary secretary Teresa Woo-Paw that concludes the temporary program is not a long-term solution to Alberta's labour shortage and carries significant negative impacts for the communities, workers and employers.

About 75 per cent of the complaints from foreign workers for violations of labour standards were upheld, — a substantial number, Lukaszuk said.

But those complaints may only show part of the problem, as many workers fear to bring their complaints forward, he said.

"These workers have the same rights and protections as Albertans, but in a practical sense they are not as likely to exercise those rights."

Lukaszuk says he's willing to look at the Manitoba system, one suggestion in the Woo-Paw report, but he did not make a firm commitment.

"That's putting a Band-Aid on a Band-Aid," he said.

Under that system, employers have to register with the province and show a clean record on upholding labour standards before they can apply to the federal government to bring in workers.

The report also calls for some government assistance to help smaller communities with integrating large numbers of temporary workers.

Gil McGowan of the Alberta Federation of Labour says he's pleased the minister recognizes that the temporary workers program is flawed and is not the best way to meet the labour shortage.

But like some other advocacy groups, the AFL urged the province to adopt the Manitoba system because is allows the government to track where temporary foreign workers are employed, at what kinds of jobs, and with what skill levels.

That kind of data makes it easier to enforce labour standards, McGowan said.

"We particularly need tougher inspection and enforcement to prevent the widespread abuse of vulnerable TFWs that we have seen in the past," he said.

Lukaszuk said it's impossible to pinpoint exactly how many Alberta employers now bring in temporary foreign workers, since the approvals come from the federal government. "But it would be in the tens of thousands," he said.

At the height of the boom, more than 60,000 were brought in, he said.

It's also impossible to know how many workers have stayed illegally and are working underground because the province does not track when contracts expire, he said.

The pressure on the workers to find a way to stay in Alberta is immense, said Lukaszuk, especially those from Third World countries.

"You can tell people as often as you want that they are temporary but many will do anything to stay. Back home, their entire family is living a middle-class existence thanks to their job here."

Canada brings in about 170,000 temporary foreign workers each year, while about 280,000 immigrants are allowed into the country annually.

Edmonton Journal, Fri Sept 9 2011
Byline: Sheila Pratt

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