Critics contend temporary foreign worker program 'inherently exploitative'

As the high season for temporary foreign workers in Canada kicks off, critics argue the program is broken, serving the short-term needs of the labour market while acting as an underground immigration pipeline and leaving foreign workers vulnerable to exploitation.

Researchers and advocates at a recent symposium at the Ontario Metropolis Centre, an immigration research centre, argued the program is "inherently exploitative" and one of the most important but ignored social issues in the country.

"There's no recognition of this and the really tragic thing is, if there's ever any recognition, it takes the form of Canadian Border Services Agency raiding workplaces and homes and deporting people, rather than saying, 'Why is it that we're developing this problem?'" says Yessy Byl, a lawyer and advocate with the Alberta Federation of Labour, and keynote speaker at the February symposium.

Canada's temporary foreign worker program allows employers to hire from outside the country if they've demonstrated no qualified Canadian applied for the job, and workers are permitted to stay in Canada only as long as they have a valid work permit. The program includes live-in nannies and eldercare workers, agricultural workers from Mexico and the Caribbean who help out on Canadian farms during planting and harvest, and low-skill service-sector jobs.

In 2008, the last year for which complete data is available, Canada admitted 250,000 immigrants as permanent residents and more than 192,000 temporary foreign workers, up from about 103,000 five years earlier. There are seasonal ebbs and flows to the number of temporary foreign workers entering Canada, with nearly one-third of the annual total arriving between April and July.

"Immigration Canada has been pushing the idea of temporary workers because they are very into the idea of disposable labour," says Francisco Rico-Martinez, an advocate on the issue and director of the FCJ Refugee Centre in Toronto. "You bring someone here to work and you don't spend any money training them, preparing them, nothing. And at the end of the two years working here, you send them back and you don't have any responsibility whatsoever about that person."

Temporary foreign workers hired overseas agree to certain work conditions, Rico-Martinez says, but when they arrive in Canada, there's often "a big surprise." Agricultural workers may take a job that promises an hourly wage but find out when they arrive that it's paid according to what they harvest, he says, or employers may deduct money for food, clothing, or accommodations from their pay.

"If they complain to the employer, the solution for the employer is, 'You know what? I will send you home,'" he says. _"The employer can basically not honour the agreement and put someone on the street."

Dan Kelly, vice-president legislative affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which represents 100,000 small-business owners, says he doesn't doubt that some abuses occur, but he dismisses the idea that employers hire temporary foreign workers to take advantage of an "indentured relationship."

"I can tell you from speaking to thousands and thousands of employers, no one in their right mind would bring in a temporary foreign worker over an able and willing Canadian participant," he says, adding that regulatory hoops, airfare and recruitment fees make it much more expensive to hire a foreign worker than a Canadian. "The temporary foreign worker program is not perfect but it's been an absolute godsend for many, many small businesses."

Jason Kenney, minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism, says temporary foreign workers are afforded the same legal protections as all Canadian workers and employers must adhere to provincial labour codes and pay the minimum wage for their region.

Earlier this year, the government tightened regulations to penalize employers who don't conform to the rules, he says, and later this spring they'll introduce new measures to crack down on unscrupulous immigration consultants.

"The reality is that there are tens of thousands of Canadian businesses which would go under if they didn't have access to this labour," Kenney says. "It's a very simple economic choice for the government: either we kill tens of thousands of businesses by refusing to allow them to have access to labour for jobs Canadians are not applying for, or we facilitate, on a limited and short-term basis, access to that skilled labour."

The government believes the "overwhelming majority" of foreign workers return to their home countries when their work permits expire, Kenney says, but he concedes: "There's not a seamless way to track it because Canada doesn't have exit controls."

The seasonal agricultural worker program, which accounts for 15 per cent of temporary foreign workers in Canada each year, allows better tracking because workers must check in with the labour ministries in their home countries when they return, Kenney says, and the compliance rate is over 90 per cent.

But Byl says "the vast majority" of temporary foreign workers come to Canada expecting to immigrate permanently, and they're often misled by recruiters who have charged them illegal fees.

Rico-Martinez says the government is "in denial" about the huge number of temporary foreign workers who go underground and stay in Canada when their work permits expire.

"The biggest reason for that is that Canada has never had a reputation for being a migrant worker country," Byl says. "Canada's reputation has been as a country to immigrate to, so there's been that mindset for people. I think we underestimate how desperate people are to improve their lives and the lives of their families."

Byline: Shannon Proudfoot, Mon Apr 26 2010
Montreal Gazette, Tues Apr 27 2010

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