Short-term labour fix, or is it exploitation?

Barely two months after a British Columbia Supreme Court judge certified a $10-million class-action lawsuit on behalf of more than 70 temporary foreign workers alleging flagrant violations of pay and working conditions, the Conservative government told Canadian employers that they can start paying short-term foreign workers 15 per cent less than they pay Canadian workers.

If the federal government felt any qualms about giving employers carte blanche to create a two-tier workforce, it wasn't obvious. Its attitude: Canada is facing a labour shortage. This is a way to fix it.

But groups that work with temporary foreign workers, especially workers at the low-skill end of the scale, fear that Canada has shifted from being a land that welcomes immigrants as equals to a nation that rents its workers from among the world's poor and sends them home when we're done with them.

Unlike immigrants, temporary foreign workers, especially low-skill workers, have no hope of permanent residency in Canada. They usually cannot bring family members with them. And they have less protection against workplace abuses than do Canadian workers. In February, Quebec's Human Rights Commission ruled that temporary foreign workers in the province are discriminated against: They are not covered by the labour-standards law or worker health and safety provisions.

The more than 70 workers in B.C.'s class-action suit allege that the owners of Denny's restaurants failed to pay them full weekly wages and overtime pay as contracted and also did not reimburse them promised travel, recruitment and processing fees.

For many employers facing worker shortages, the temporary foreign worker program is a godsend, especially now that they can pay the workers less. There's a fast turnaround in answering employer demands - as quickly as 10 days - and the employee has no choice but to stay with the employer who brought him or her into the country. If workers leave one job for another, they will generally be forced to leave the country.

Glen Hodgson, chief economist with the Conference Board of Canada, isn't opposed to the idea of temporary foreign workers being treated differently from Canadian workers.

"The temporary foreign worker program is a short-term fix," Hodgson said. "It does provide some instant relief, even though it isn't the structural solution we as a country with an aging workforce need."

Temporary foreign workers accounted for almost one in three new jobs created in Canada between 2007 and 2011, according to Jim Stanford, economist with the Canadian Auto Workers, Canada's largest private-sector union. The number of temporary foreign workers reached more than 300,000 by 2011.

Three years ago, the Alberta Federation of Labour warned that the temporary foreign worker program was becoming a permanent part of Canada's labour market.

The temporary foreign-worker program was instituted in 1973 to allow employers to bring in, to meet short-term needs, scientists, academics and engineers whose skills were not available in Canada. But according to the Alberta labour federation, highly skilled foreign workers were laid off and sent home after the 2008 global economic meltdown, and employers instead began using the program to bring in low-skilled workers.

This shift has been tracked by researchers Delphine Nakache and Paula Kinoshita. In their 2010 paper published by the Institute for Research in Public Policy, they warned of possible consequences that could undermine the country's social fabric.

Low-skill workers come from the developing world, mainly Central and South America and Asia, and tend to be visible minorities and not speak English, they said, whereas the majority of highly skilled workers tend to be from the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States, are not visible minorities and are English-speaking.

The division between the two groups continues, the researchers said, with the skilled "welcome to settle permanently [while] the lower skilled are expected to leave when their work permits expire."

France and Germany have been down this road. Canada should be very leery of following them.

Victoria Times-Colonist, Sat May 12 2012
Byline: Janet Bagnall

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