Foreign workers plead for better conditions, citizenship: Alberta Federation of Labour claims people exploited, denied rights, then discarded

When Manuel came to Canada two years ago as a temporary foreign worker, the 35-year-old figured his family had landed a ticket out of El Salvador.

"When I came here, the only thing that I had in my mind is to build my baby girl a future," said Manuel, who spoke to reporters under an alias due to fears his family may be targeted by gangs in his home country.

But upon arrival in Edmonton, his wages were cut from a promised $15 to $10.86 an hour and he was housed in a duplex with 17 other men.

Manuel, who works at Maple Leaf Poultry, says his conditions have improved since he joined a union and he's expecting to hear any day now whether he's been approved for permanent residency status.

Yessy Byl, temporary foreign worker advocate for the Alberta Federation of Labour, says Manuel is lucky because it is rare for temporary foreign workers to get such an opportunity.

Byl is calling for the elimination of Canada's temporary foreign worker program in her latest report on the living and working conditions of Alberta's 57,000-plus temporary foreign workers.

"The government has made a choice that we need people to come here, but we're going to bring them in as foreign workers with less rights than immigrants," said Byl.

The first report Byl completed in 2007 highlighted cases of foreign worker exploitation, including illegal broker fees and substandard housing.

Those issues continue to persist, said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

"Instead of saying to immigrants or people from abroad who come to Canada that we will consider you for citizenship, we're basically saying that we'll take your labour, we'll take your hard work, and when we're done with you, we'll discard you like a used Post-it note," McGowan said.

The report notes that temporary foreign workers coming to Canada are increasingly low-skilled labourers.

"What we're witnessing essentially is the creation of a vast and growing underclass of workers where people get stuck in job ghettos at the low end of the wage ladder (and) are not getting the same kind of rights in the labour market as others," said McGowan.

The federation's update was to be sent to both provincial and federal governments on Monday.

"We'll be reviewing the report carefully," Janice Schroeder, employment and immigration spokesperson for the government of Alberta, said on Saturday.

"There are some points where the issues they are raising are certainly aligned with what the government is doing in terms of what those workers need," she said. "There are, of course, some areas where we disagree."

Schroeder said the province does not support ending the temporary foreign worker program.

"We believe it's still meeting a labour need," she explained.

She emphasized employers must meet workplace laws at all times and cases of exploitation should be reported.

Byl would like to see an overhaul of Canada's immigration program that will allow all low-skilled foreign workers to apply for permanent residency. Her report also recommends that foreign workers currently here on valid work permits be offered permanent residency and that the government more actively enforce employment rights.

"We would like to see the issue of the temporary foreign worker program and its transformation into a European-style guest-worker program become a major issue at the next federal election, whenever it comes," said McGowan.

Edmonton Journal, Tues Apr 28 2009
Byline: Jennifer Fong

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