Foreign workers exploited by temporary job plan: National program used for 'end-run around mainline immigration system'

EDMONTON - Gil McGowan would say Puneet Puneet is an example of what's wrong with Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker program, which he says is not only exploitive but a clear indication of the country's dysfunctional immigration system.

Puneet lost his job when Dell recently closed its call centre and is now "stranded" in a foreign country with few options for other employment.

He is among a handful of Dell workers who came here from India several months ago with two-year work permits and aspirations of a rosier economic future. Now he has to find another job or return to India.

"There are other companies interested in hiring me, but my work visa is specifically tied to Dell and nobody wants to go through the process of having it transferred," said Puneet, a technical support worker.

Allowing temporary foreign workers more latitude to get other jobs if they're laid off or find themselves in an untenable situation were among recommendations made to the House of Commons standing committee on citizenship and immigration Tuesday in Edmonton. The committee is on a cross-country trip to gather information about the program.

McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, was one of the presenters.

He said Alberta, because of its ongoing labour woes, has become "ground zero" for the Temporary Foreign Worker program, which has expanded into "a huge social and economic experiment that's in the process of going horribly wrong."

Jim Gurnett said social agencies such as his are bearing the brunt of the fallout from that experiment.

"This enthusiasm for temporary foreign workers is a dangerous and incorrect direction to go," said Gurnett, director of the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers.

The program has been around for 40 years, but McGowan said until recently it was used to bring about 7,000 or so workers to Alberta every year.

In 2006, the last full year for which statistics are available, nearly 24,000 workers were brought here under the program, the first time in Canada's history that a province brought more people into the country as temporary foreign workers than under the mainstream immigration program.

"Clearly, the Temporary Foreign Worker program is no longer a sleepy corner

of the federal bureaucracy," said

McGowan. "And clearly, it's being used to do an end-run around the mainline immigration system."

Edmonton lawyer Yessy Byl, who is also the federation's Temporary Foreign Worker advocate, told the committee the program has created a class of "disposable workers" who have few rights and fewer options.

"There are a huge number of brokers who are having a field day" by abusing vulnerable workers and charging them illegal placement fees, said Byl.

She called for some kind of regulatory body to oversee such brokers, who are also referred to as recruiters or immigration consultants.

The provincial government revealed Monday that it has received more than 800 complaints from foreign labourers in the past 31/2 months, most involving perceived unfair wage deductions, fees charged by recruitment agencies and accommodation issues.

Mike Percy, dean of business at the University of Alberta, said miscommunication and sheer volume are likely at the root of many of these complaints, but said they need to be dealt with quickly.

"We need to be transparent in terms of the rules and in terms of the expectations of all parties.

"Eight hundred is a large number, and some of that is driven by the sheer volume of foreign workers and miscommunication on the part of these brokers.

"Some of that miscommunication may be intentional, and if it is, we need to deal with it as harshly as we can," Percy said.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the International Brotherhood of Electrical workers also made presentations to the committee.

Both unions represent thousands of workers in the two sectors that have seen the most dramatic spikes in the use of temporary foreign workers -- the construction and service sectors.

Edmonton Coun. Amerjeet Sohi, meanwhile, is doing what he can to help Puneet and some of the other workers laid off because of the Dell call-centre closure, which put more than 900 people out of work.

He said he tried to contact the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation, which signed the deal with Dell three years ago to establish its operation here, and discovered its president Ron Gilbertson is overseas with Mayor Stephen Mandel trying to recruit foreign workers.

"And here you have people who will be shipped back home," said Sohi. "That's the irony."

Edmonton Journal, Wed Apr 2 2008
Byline: Jamie Hall, with files from Susan Ruttan

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