Alberta pursues 41,000 foreign workers; 'We are being swamped with requests from employers'

The federal government has given the green light in the past year for more than 40,000 temporary foreign workers to come to Alberta -- setting the stage for a staggering 300 per cent jump from just three years ago.

The workers, being brought in to ease the massive labour shortage, would create a new city half the size of Red Deer if they all lived in one place.

The new data provided by Human Resources and Social Development Canada also indicate the number of temporary foreign workers could grow even larger in the coming months because "a significant number" of applications are still being processed over and above the 41,218 requests approved in the past 12 months.

The information from Ottawa focused on the Labour Market Opinions confirmed in Alberta -- a key step in bringing temporary foreign workers to Canada.

Calgary immigration lawyer Michael Greene notes that a different federal department, Citizenship and Immigration, still needs to issue a work permit for the labourers to enter Canada, but that will go through in the majority of cases.

"We are being swamped with requests from employers for temporary foreign workers because they simply can't find people," Greene said.

Dan Kelly of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said the temporary foreign worker program has been "growing like a weed."

Both the demand for workers and recent Harper government changes to the program -- meant to streamline the process for employers -- have helped, Kelly said.

Overall, Alberta employers made requests for 94,123 labourers from other countries between April 1, 2007, and March 31, 2008.

"The numbers don't surprise me, but they highlight the desperate need for reform to this program," said Gil McGowan, head of the Alberta Federation of Labour, who has become Alberta's most outspoken critic of the temporary worker program.

"This is essentially a program that has been allowed to grow exponentially without addressing any of the very legitimate concerns that have been raised and without putting any of the necessary safeguards in place."

McGowan said the foreign worker program artificially allows employers to keep wages lower when employees are scarce, creates a lower class of worker,and will cause tensions between the temporary workers and local, permanent staff.

In 2005, just more than 10,000 temporary foreign workers entered Alberta. In late 2006, the latest year in which formal population statistics are available, there was a base population of more than 22,000 foreign workers.

As Alberta witnesses an explosion in the growth of transient labour, the government is also moving to fund immigrant settlement agencies to serve the burgeoning numbers of temporary foreign workers.

It is a first for Alberta and a rarity in Canada for a government to provide direct settlement services to temporary foreign workers.

Unlike permanent immigrants -- who are given settlement help by both Ottawa and the province -- temporary workers are in the country only at the request of a Canadian employer and have not traditionally received formal assistance from government immigration programs.

"It's tough for somebody that comes from a totally different country and different rules and regulations to feel at home on a short-term basis," Employment and Immigration Minister Hector Goudreau said last week.

"Many, many don't know their rights. They don't know all their responsibilities. They often have a hard time with language."

The provincial plan could see funding so that temporary foreign workers are given winter clothes, help with housing, meeting people from their ethnic community and navigating government red tape, the same as traditional immigrants.

Up to now, immigration centres have been stretching their budgets and staff to help foreign workers who come in off the street. Some temporary workers say they are being mistreated by employers; others just need to know where to get a driver's licence.

"We try to help them as much as possible," said Jaime Enachescu, communications co-ordinator for Immigrant Services Calgary. "We're always stretched for our services."

Temporary foreign workers are coming through their doors every day, she said.

"We're all trying, but it's not easy. And this is a new issue."

The newly sworn-in Goudreau has been tasked with increasing the number of both permanent immigrants and temporary foreign workers flowing into Alberta. During the provincial election, the Conservative campaign team touted foreign workers as a solution to many of Alberta's labour ills.

Although some have criticized both the federal and provincial governments for letting the temporary foreign worker program grow unchecked, in December the Alberta government set up two special advisory offices for the workers and established a team to investigate their workplaces.

The temporary foreign worker program is different from traditional immigration programs, as workers are allowed in only on a short-term basis if employers can't find Canadians or permanent residents to do the work.

The program used to be focused on attracting highly skilled foreign nationals and seasonal agriculture workers, but the last several years have seen dramatic growth in low-skilled workers -- who are now taking full-time jobs as dishwashers, construction workers, security guards or truck drivers.

Dale Taylor, executive director of the Centre for Newcomers, called the province's approach "realistic and sensible.

"People are coming from places where they sometimes don't have the same labour standards, or they're not enforced. So sometimes their expectations are low, and they're not aware that they have rights regarding workplace safety, labour standards and hours of work."

Calgary Herald, Page A1, Sun Apr 13 2008
Byline: Kelly Cryderman

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