Temporary foreign workers infected with scabies, but still made to work was just one horror story related to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration.
The committee was in Edmonton Tuesday where it got an earful from union and labour representatives, who slammed the program. The visit is part of a cross-country tour set to gather information for a report the standing committee is preparing for Parliament on the temporary foreign worker program -- which is administered by the federal government through citizenship and Immigration plus Human Resources and Social Development Canada (HRSDC).
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), wasn't too optimistic whether the committee understood the severity of the abuses he says are being committed under the program. McGowan, along with Mike Toal of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, stressed the need for workers to be eligible for immigration rather than being exploited as a disposable workforce.
The opposition members were more receptive to the presentations, while government (Tory) MPs repeated the same lines: temporary foreign workers are the only answer to the tight labour market, said McGowan.
He added they don't seem to understand they're creating an underclass of exploitable workers.
The hearings are to cumulate with a report expected next fall. What purpose this report will serve is unknown. "Several members of the committee seemed determined to make some changes to the system, but whether it will be anything more than tinkering is an open question," said the labour leader.
Acknowledging Canada needs workers, "We shouldn't be bringing them in as indentured servants," McGowan recounted this morning. "We should be bringing them in as prospective citizens with full rights."
He added temporary foreign workers are increasingly being used to keep wages down and an excuse for employers not to train the next generation of tradespeople.
McGowan noted there's also a vast Aboriginal population in Canada also being overlooked. He accuses employers of not doing what needs to be done: training more people here in Alberta and pushing for real reform to the immigration program as opposed to this "temporary program which is just a Band-Aid."
One story Toal related concerned 17 workers from El Salvador. Employed in Edmonton, their employer provided housing, a side-by-side duplex with nine workers in one side, and eight in the other. He pointed out that Edmonton's tenancy laws state only five unrelated adults can live in one residence.
Each side had two bathrooms, one upstairs and one downstairs. In one of the units the downstairs toilet didn't work. The employer also provided bedding that were unsanitized hand-me-downs.
"A couple of the guys contracted scabies," recalled Toal. "The employer was aware, took them to a doctor, but still kept them at work ... in the chicken processing plant." The employer did not inform their co-workers there was an outbreak of a contagious disease, and a co-worker contracted scabies.
A claim was made to the Workers Compensation Board which duly accepted that claim.
These incidents date back to September 2007.
Scabies is an easily transmissible skin infection that causes intense itch, particularly between the fingers and skin folds where the scabies parasite burrows. It is common in crowded and unsanitary conditions.
The workers have since recovered, and are still working at the plant.
The employers' response to the workers' living conditions was: "It's a darn sight better from what they came from," said Toal. "And that's from a major Canada-wide employer."
The federal committee's response to this story? Nothing, recalled Toal. He believes, as does McGowan, the committee was looking to defend the federal side of the program and pass the buck to the provincial government. He added there is no policing of the program, that the federal government circumvents its own stipulations in the work permits.
These temporary workers pay contributions to CPP, and EI as well as income tax yet will ever receive any benefits.
"We should be giving them points off the immigration system," he added. "If we're fast-tracking them to work here, at least give them the opportunity to stay here through proper immigration channels to obtain residency."
Fort McMurray Today, Wed Apr 2 2008
Byline: Carol Christian