Guest labour program raises troubling questions

To Canadian employers and the federal government, Rajinder Kumar represents a solution to a labour shortage.

To union leaders and immigrant advocates, the tandoori chef from New Delhi, brought to Canada by a Toronto restaurant last fall, is a modern version of the indentured servant.

All Kumar wanted when he came in under the temporary foreign worker program was a decent job that paid enough to send his two children in India to a private school where they would get a chance at a better life. What the 43 year old got instead were 14-hour days sweating over a stove and threats and intimidation if he quit.

"I can't go home now. I've spent a lot of time and money to be here," said Kumar, who has $200 left in his pocket. He claims he is owed $3,000 in unpaid wages. "I need to work and earn my air ticket to go home."

For decades, the temporary worker program has served as a kind of back door to Canada mainly for highly skilled professionals, seasonal farm workers and nannies.

Unlike the clogged immigration system, the program can respond quickly to fluctuating labour demands.

But an expansion of the program and loosening of rules to let in more low-skilled labour - the centrepiece of this week's announced plan by Immigration Minister Diane Finley to overhaul immigration - raises troubling questions not only about the program's ability to protect the record number of foreign workers arriving here, but also its impact on Canadian wages.

Critics say that in certain low-wage sectors - restaurants, retail stores, warehouses and factories - the program is nothing more than a way for employers to bring in cheap "offshore" labour, instead of raising wages for low-income Canadians.

"By expanding the temporary foreign worker program, Canada is creating a pool of disposable workers to do jobs at a wage that Canadians won't accept," said Karl Flecker, a national director of the Canadian Labour Congress.

"That's scaremongering," Finley responded in an interview this week. "Temporary foreign workers must be treated equally with Canadian workers."

Last month, the minister said the government is expanding the program in Ontario, by opening an office designed to make it easier for employers in fields with shortages - such as medicine, nursing, engineering and mechanics - to apply.

But advocates for workers' rights fear that Ontario, like B.C. and Alberta, will soon see a large influx of low-skilled workers whose work permit is tied to a single employer and who are vulnerable to exploitation thanks to language barriers, poor education and unfamiliarity with Canada's labour laws.

"It's already a very bad situation (in Ontario) for the domestic workers and farm workers," said Deena Ladd of the Workers' Action Centre, a Toronto-based advocacy group, referring to cases involving long hours with no overtime and unpaid wages. "This is going to open a new can of worms."

In 2006, the federal government issued 106,750 temporary foreign worker permits, almost half of those for Ontario employers. Total figures for 2007 have not been released, but 103,000 were issued within the first nine months. At that rate, the final tally for 2007 is likely to be 30,000 above the previous year.

While nannies and farm labourers continue to make up the largest chunk of foreign workers, the last two years have seen a surge in fast-food and kitchen helpers, meat-cutters, cleaners, truck drivers and factory workers.

In Alberta, the oil boom and a rush of construction have pushed the hunt for workers into the retail, manufacturing and service industries - the kinds of jobs Canada's immigration "points" system, with its emphasis on university education and professional skills, tends to screen out.

The increase can also be attributed, in part, to the Harper government easing restrictions on the hiring of temporary foreign workers. For example, employers now only have to advertise a position in a federal job centre for seven days before searching abroad, while the previous rules required advertising in local newspapers for six weeks.

In November, the Alberta Federation of Labour released a report showing there was rampant abuse of foreign workers - in a province where 37,000 temporary worker applications were approved last year.

Because of suspicions of widespread exploitation, the federation set up an advocacy office last April. In the first six months, it received more than 1,400 inquiries and opened case files for 123 workers. Some 89 cases involved unregulated third-party brokers, mostly overseas, who charged workers $3,000 to $10,000 for their services and presented misleading claims.

"The bulk of cases concerned workers experiencing problems with working conditions: Wages lower than promised, job provided being radically different than promised, job disappearing upon arrival, demands to perform inappropriate personal services, racist behaviour, threats of deportation and imprisonment," the report states.

In light of these incidents, the Alberta government is spending $1 million a year to hire more workplace inspectors and set up offices in Edmonton and Calgary to help foreign workers with employment issues. It is also running a $700,000 educational campaign.

Ontario currently has no plan to invest in similar measures, a labour ministry official said.

A big question left unanswered is who ought to be responsible for the workers once they're in Canada.

Before arriving in Toronto last November to start his $36,000-a-year job as a head chef at the Amaya Express, Kumar said his employer advised he would be working a 40-hour week. Instead, he said he began doing 14-hour-a-day shifts.

Kumar claims he was threatened by his employer and contacted police. The Workers' Action Centre has since filed a complaint with the Ontario Ministry of Labour on his behalf. No ruling has been made on the complaint by the ministry.

Restaurant owner Hemant Bhagwani has denied the allegations and said he was unaware of the complaint to the ministry.

In another Ontario case, 11 welders and plumbers from the Philippines paid brokers almost $10,000 to come to Toronto under the program. When they arrived last summer, they were subcontracted to do menial work in Barrie, including at an Aurora water bottling plant. For two months their wages were withheld. When they were finally paid, the hourly rate was $14 instead of the promised $23.

Threatened with deportation if they quit, one worker contacted the Filipino embassy, which found them jobs in Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island.

In response to a complaint by the Canadian Labour Congress on behalf of the Filipinos, Service Canada officials responded that the role of monitoring workers on the job, foreign or Canadian, lies with the provinces, not the federal government.

Congress officials say the federal government has a duty to these guest workers and have called for a national monitoring system to protect them from being exploited. Ideally, union leaders say they would like to see the program focus mainly on high-skilled professionals or be scrapped entirely.

Few would dispute there is a labour shortage in certain sectors. The debate is whether Canada is really short on low-skilled labour.

Last year Service Canada issued a 10-year forecast predicting no general shortage of lower-skilled workers in Canada.

With unemployment at just 3.2 per cent, Alberta can justify its demand for a foreign worker program, said Arthur Sweetman, director of the school of policy studies at Queen's University.

But he isn't sure the program should be expanded to some other parts of the country, including Ontario, with its 6.3 per cent jobless rate.

Rising wages are usually the best indicator of a labour shortage, yet Statistics Canada and labour experts say wages for low-skilled work have been stagnant for years.

Some argue low-skilled foreign workers are needed to do unpleasant jobs that Canadians refuse to do at current pay scales - like the caregiver and farm worker jobs that often pay $7 to $10 an hour.

"If people don't want to do it, it's a labour shortage," said Andrew Cardozo, executive director of the Alliance of Sector Councils, a body of business, education, labour and professional groups representing half of the Canadian economy.

"Yes, employers could pay higher wages, but it's going to drive up the cost of goods.

"Are people going to pay $3 for a Tim Hortons coffee?"

Toronto Star, Sat Mar 15 2008
Byline: Nicholas Keung

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