Temporary Foreign Worker Program: Conservative government must fix what it broke

Unions and migrant workers' advocacy groups warned Human Resources Minister Diane Finley of potential for abuse.

Last year the government announced changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP)Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), indicating that it would fast-track the processing of employer applications for migrant workers and allow employers to pay them up to 15-per-cent less than prevailing wages. The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) warned that those changes would make an already flawed program worse. I met with Human Resources Minister Diane Finley shortly after the announcement and provided her with a book of abuses that one of our affiliates had compiled. The CLC urged Finley not to implement the changes and to conduct a thorough review of the program.

Now the chickens have come home to roost. The events last week with the Royal Bank of Canada are not isolated. This follows on the heels of unions in British Columbia in court battling the government's decision to approve HD Mining's use of offshore coal miners after the company rejected the applications of hundreds of Canadian miners.

The Alberta Federation of Labour recently found that the federal government has granted thousands of fast-tracked work permits designed for employers seeking high-skilled migrant workers under the Accelerated Labour Market Opinion (ALMO). The documents show many migrant workers brought in under the ALMO process are actually toiling in fast-food restaurants, convenience stores and gas stations.

We shouldn't be surprised, given the repeated warnings sounded by unions and migrant workers' advocacy groups. What is surprising is that Finley has not offered her resignation over the issue. She should do the right thing and resign over what has happened on her watch.

The Conservative government has been determined to alter the national workforce. The 2007 budget document said, "it is our government's intention to create the best educated, most skilled and most flexible workforce in the world." The TFWP has been the key to that flexibility. The same 2007 budget allowed Canada's employers to have access to temporary foreign workers "for any legally recognized occupation from any country," eliminating the previous limitation to occupations with recognized labour shortages.

Today, companies are employing nearly 340,000 migrant workers — more than our annual intake of permanent newcomers. Between 2007 and 2011, 30 per cent of all net new jobs in Canada went to migrant workers — during a period of high unemployment in this country. This is a concern. If employers need migrant workers to do jobs year after year, then let's admit it is not a temporary situation.

My grandfather came to Canada as a migrant worker. But there was nothing temporary about it. He was proud to become a Canadian citizen, as were so many of our parents and grandparents. Shouldn't we offer migrant workers a meaningful pathway to permanent residency and welcome their families?

Employers have been quick to take advantage of the loophole that Finley provided in April 2012. After announcing the up to 15-per-cent lower-wages scheme, she promised a new monitoring initiative to make sure the rules were being followed. Sadly, that initiative indicated that no more than 20 per cent of employer applications would be reviewed and only after employers had already received permission to hire migrant workers.

The government says that employers and labour brokers have to abide by the rules. Two of the criteria they must meet are: Has the employer attempted to hire or train available Canadians or permanent residents? Will the employer ensure the migrant worker will be paid substantially the same wage rate? There is ample evidence to show that these rules are being blatantly disregarded.

In 2009, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced that his department would publish online a list of employers found to be flouting the rules and they would be subject to sanctions. Four years later, that bad-boss website doesn't contain a single name of a single company.

Tripling the size of the migrant workforce in just 10 years, and allowing employers to pay migrant workers less, can only result in wages being driven down for everyone. It is unfair to both workers in Canada and to migrant workers.

The government must redress the ongoing problems with the TFWP. In 2009, the auditor general, after finding significant problems with the program, recommended a comprehensive review. Finally the prime minister has announced that a review will take place, but will it be transparent and meaningfully involve all stakeholders? Solutions do exist. For example, the CLC is calling on the government to establish a National Migrant Worker Commission. It must have real regulatory and enforcement powers to protect migrant workers' rights and ensure that our national labour force is fully utilized.

Ken Georgetti is president of the 3.3 million member Canadian Labour Congress.

The Star Commentary, Tuesday, Apr 16, 2013
Byline: Ken Georgetti, CLC

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