The Alberta Federation of Labour is creating a new Temporary Foreign Worker Advocate Office to help protect the basic human and workplace rights of vulnerable foreign workers in the province.
"We've already heard too many stories of exploitation, neglect and unfair treatment," says Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan. "We have to act and help protect people who come in good faith to work in this province."
The AFL is contracting with labour lawyer Yessy Byl to create the Advocate's Office to assist foreign workers when they encounter unfair treatment.
"We asked the provincial government to act on this. They have done too little so far and the number of problems has just ballooned," McGowan says. "We felt it our duty to act to help protect these working people."
McGowan says the lack of clear rules and aggressive policing has opened the door for unscrupulous employers and employment brokers to take advantage of workers coming to Alberta from other countries.
"The problems are as simple as getting employers to actually pay what they promised, right up to complex visa issues," McGowan says. "Many of these people don't speak English well, they don't know the country and they can't really defend themselves."
Byl, an award-winning Edmonton lawyer with more than 20 years experience helping union and non-union workers, has already been assisting a number of foreign temporary workers on her own time - mostly notably a group of Romanian welders and machinists.
"I've already seen disturbing examples of employers and brokers behaving badly - and governments looking the other way," Byl says. "Canada has a well-deserved good reputation around the world. But that reputation will be put at risk if we continue to allow workers coming here from other parts of the world to be treated in these ways."
In her role as Advocate, Byl will help temporary foreign workers file employment standards complaints and complaints about workplace health and safety. She will also help foreign workers understand their rights, deal with immigration issues, and navigate the provincial and federal bureaucracies.
McGowan says the AFL has enough money to keep the Advocate Office running as a pilot project for at least six months and possibly a year. After that, he says it will be time to reassess.
"This is work that government should be doing - but we'll do it in hopes that people like Iris Evans and Monte Solberg will eventually come around," says McGowan. "Our goals are twofold. First to help address the immediate needs of temporary foreign workers who are being treated unfairly and, second, to gather enough evidence to convince the federal and provincial governments to step in and reform the system."
McGowan reiterated the labour movement's position that the real solution to Alberta's tight labour market lies with better training for domestic workers; reform to the mainline immigration system and measures to better control the pace of oil sands development.
"By allowing the Temporary Foreign Worker program to grow exponentially without any of the necessary safeguards, our governments are essentially creating an underclass of workers who don't have the same rights and protections in the workplace as Canadian workers," he says.
"We feel strongly that if these people are good enough to build our oil sands projects, take care of our children or serve our coffee, then they're good enough to stay as citizens. That's the Canadian way. Stringing people along for years in precarious situations thousands of miles away from their families - that's not the Canadian way."
For More Information contact:
Gil McGowan, President at 780.218-9888 (cell)