Will Tories Fix Temp Foreign Worker Program?

Social justice lawyer Fay Faraday says it's time for Canadians to insist on sweeping reforms of the federal Foreign Temporary Workers Program to protect workers from the kinds of abuses reported on in the three previous articles in this series. "It's a systemic problem and we will keep hearing those horror stories until we do something about it."

Faraday offers 22 recommendations in her Metcalf Foundation funded report titled "Made In Canada: How the Law Constructs Migrant Workers' Insecurity," which found that abuse of migrant workers is endemic. Faraday's proposals include allowing work permits to be tied to an industry or a province rather than a single employer. She also advises the government to "reverse" the trend of temporariness and allow all workers the chance to apply for Canadian residency.

Faraday, together with other lawyers, Ai Li Lim and Charles Gordon, and union leaders Joe Barrett and Gil McGowan, emphasize the need for enforcement mechanisms: a civil body or employment standards investigators to ensure labour laws are respected. It's not like it's not possible. In Manitoba, for example, all employers and recruitment agencies must be registered with the provincial government, and inspectors are sent to worksites.

Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan calls the Manitoba government's system the "gold standard" of protection for migrant workers. Because of the oversight, the federal government will not process an application for a migrant worker if the provincial government believes that an employer would break labour laws. To Faraday, this collaboration suggests that "national standards" can be accomplished to provide "front-end protection against migrant worker exploitation."

Manitoba also transitions many migrant workers into permanent residency through the Provincial Nominee Program, through which 90 per cent of its economic immigrants come. From 2005 to 2009, Manitoba granted residency to 13,089 foreign workers, representing 38 per cent of all nominees, whereas Ontario accepted only 1,247 in that same four-year span.

In 2011 the federal government introduced changes to the TFWP to "provide further protections for temporary foreign workers while alleviating temporary labour shortages." These three changes include:

• ensuring the "genuineness" of the job offer;

• banning employers for two years if they fail to respect wages and working conditions;

• imposing a limit of four years in which migrant workers are eligible to stay in Canada -- and they cannot return until another four years has passed.

The first change, say critics, is virtually meaningless, while the second is not being enforced. There is currently not a single employer on the blacklist -- and no regulating body exists to find and ban bad employers. Only the last change -- limiting stays to four years -- is actually implemented by the government, which, say critics, merely serves to heighten workers' disposability in Canada. Within four years, workers most likely would have improved their language skills, have learned their rights, and be more willing to unionize.

Protections do exist: government

An October report by Jeremy J. Nuttall in The Tyee that a recruiting company was asking Chinese coal miners to pay an illegal $12,500 recruitment fee to gain work in B.C. through the Temporary Foreign Workers Program raised further concerns about the mistreatment of migrant workers. Two Canadian unions responded by launching a judicial review to investigate whether the workers were given employment authorizations, also known as a Labour Market Opinion, that ensures Canadian workers were sought before recruiting miners from China. As the controversy over the HD coal mine in Murray River grew, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada announced that it was already investigating the entire Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

HRSDC says the government is concerned over the "integrity" of the program. "When Canadians are not available to fill vacancies, temporary foreign workers who are hired must be treated fairly and the same as Canadians doing the same job," says Marian Ngo, press secretary for Human Resources Minister Diane Finley.

The other federal department that oversees the TFWP, Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), says it has plans to further protect workers. In an email, CIC communications representative Paul Northcott told The Tyee that the government introduced "new legislative authorities that will allow for inspections of employers, including site visits, to verify their compliance with program requirements" as part of the Economic Action Plan 2012. He also highlighted separate efforts of provincial governments to prevent abuse, such as Ontario's June 2012 inspections of recruitment agencies, Manitoba's and Nova Scotia's requirement for employers and recruiters to be provincially registered, and Alberta and Saskatchewan's new legislation to crack down on unscrupulous agencies and improve transparency.

Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan isn't impressed. The provinces took responsibility because they had to "fill the vacuum" of inaction on the part of Ottawa, he said.

"The federal government has literally spent tens of millions of dollars on expanding the TFWP and introducing mechanisms to speed approval for the employers but they spent barely a cent on investigation and enforcement [to protect the workers]," he added.

McGowan also expressed doubt about the CIC's announced changes, noting that he and the Alberta unions have been asking for changes for at least five years. "Given the Harper government's reluctance to spend on public services, I remain skeptical about whether or not they will actually put the resources in place to make these rules anything more than a paper tiger."

Temp workers and Canada's job landscape

Earlier in this series we met Costa Rican Jose Salguero, one of the imported workers who helped build the Canada Line railway for pay so low they took action by joining a union and winning a BC Human Rights Tribunal decision. We met Filipino Alfredo Sales, who fought to reclaim over $6,000 in lost wages from Denny's, and leads a class action suit on behalf of dozens more migrant workers the restaurant chain employed. Workers like Jose Salguero and Alfredo Sales require courage to stand up for themselves by filing legal action. According to McGowan and Faraday, low-wage workers in general tend not to complain to the authorities over employment violations until after they quit and find work elsewhere. Adding their temporary status to the equation makes it all the more risky.

Industry argues that Canada is a big country with a lot of tough or specialized jobs that need doing in hard places, and that foreign workers can be the only way to fill the need. But critics respond that the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, wittingly or unwittingly, creates Third World conditions for migrant workers, and risks putting similar pressures on the domestic workforce. By moving entire employment categories, which Canadians will always have a need for, to non-resident workers, the TFWP encourages economic dependency abroad while discouraging the development of local job markets. It's outsourcing by insourcing from abroad, a two-tiered system wherein no one wins.

The lack of enforceable rules allows major corporations, medium-sized businesses and even middle-class Canadians who need caregivers to do as they please with migrant workers. Neither SELI and SNC Lavalin, who paid their Latin workers a fraction of what they paid Europeans, nor Denny's, who did not pay for Filipino workers' airfares and overtime work, -- nor even Sinopec, who was ruled responsible for the deaths of two Chinese oilsands workers, due to safety violations -- have paid any fines. Nor have they been banned from hiring migrant workers in future.

Becoming the 'Dubai of the North'

McGowan believes that the continued use of migrant labour will heighten racial tensions, as local and foreign workers are pitted against each other. "It flies in the face of Canadian values and it's being used as a tool to undermine the Canadian labour market," he says. The AFL believes that the system is broken, that the Temporary Foreign Worker Program should be scrapped and replaced with permanent immigration -- the way Canada was before.

"We're not saying that Canada should stop bringing workers from overseas to work in our economy, he says. "What we are saying is that this is not the way to do it."

The risk with the current loosely regulated system is that the hard-won rights to eight-hour work days, overtime pay, medical coverage and worker protections may be eroded by transnational corporations who have access to a cheap workforce that is more docile by the nature of the regulatory framework.

"If they can mistreat foreign workers I don't think it's long before they mistreat domestic workers as well," says lawyer Charles Gordon. He also says eventually migrant workers will want to stay – and they will, "legally or illegally." Other experts anticipate that the nearly half a million migrant workers present in Canada in 2011 could go underground when they are expected to return to their home countries after four years in accordance with new legislation.

"The United States is an example of that, where you have a lot of illegal foreign workers but they're working and they're a significant part of the economy," Gordon says.

McGowan draws a comparison to other countries. "We're becoming the Dubai or Saudi Arabia of the North, not only because we have oil, but because we're abandoning real immigration in favour of using an exploitative guest worker program to fill our most menial and undesirable jobs. We've joined a global underground railway trading in human misery. It's a shameful transformation and a betrayal of Canadian values and our traditional approach to immigration."

The Tyee, Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013
Byline: Krystle Alarcon

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