Alberta becoming "Dubai of the North" as many employers use guest-worker program as first choice rather than last resort, warns labour leader
Alberta employers are increasingly looking to temporary foreign workers (TFWs) to fill jobs while long unemployment lines continue to plague other parts of Canada.
New figures from the federal government show that the number of approved applications for employers wanting to bring TFWs into Alberta soared by 37 per cent between 2009 and 2010, rising by 11,655 to a total of 42,885. No other province comes close to Alberta in terms of the per capita usage of the federal government's TFW program.
"While unemployment is in the double digits in other parts of Canada, and more than 25 per cent for young workers in some provinces, it's becoming increasingly apparent that the TFW program is becoming the first choice for many employers rather than a tool of last resort, especially here in Alberta," says Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, which represents 145,000 workers.
Federal records show that there were 57,774 TFWs working in Alberta in 2010, down from the peak of 65,671 in 2009. But if all the newly approved applications are used by employers to bring new guest workers into the country, the number of TFWs in Alberta could jump to over 100,000.
"The majority of applications for TFWs in Alberta - 38 per cent - are for workers in the accommodation and food services industry. We have now essentially created an underclass of cheap, exploitable workers in Alberta," says McGowan.
"We're becoming the Dubai or Saudi Arabia of the North, not only because we have oil, but because we're abandoning real immigration in favour of using an exploitative guest worker program to fill our most menial and undesirable jobs. We've joined a global underground railway trading in human misery. It's a shameful transformation and a betrayal Canadian values and our traditional approach to immigration."
McGowan says the increasing use of TFWs is particularly troubling at a time when unemployment remains stubbornly high in other parts of Canada. Instead of allowing the tight labour market in Alberta's service sector to drive wages up – which, in turn, would attract workers from other parts of the country – employers are being allowed to turn to the TFW program to fill their recruitment needs.
"For a government that prides itself on 'letting the market decide,' the Harper Conservatives are doing exactly the opposite in Alberta's labour market," says McGowan. "They're using the TFW program to help employers, especially in the service sector, defy the economic laws of gravity by using foreign workers to keep wages low, when the tight market says they should be going up. It's an illegitimate and inappropriate use of government power."
In construction related to the oil sands, the use of TFWs is also up dramatically. Wages for guest workers are higher in this sector, but McGowan questions the over-reliance on the TFW program there, too.
"There are currently more than 60 major oil-sands construction projects underway in Alberta," says McGowan. "Employers say they can't get the work done without temporary foreign workers. But if the Alberta government set a more reasonable pace for development in the oil sands – say ten or fifteen projects at a time instead of 60 – then we could handle the work with Canada's existing construction labour force. Governments and oil companies have become high on rapid development in the oil sands and temporary foreign workers have become the crack cocaine that they use to fuel their addiction. For the sake of all the TFWs who are being exploited and all the Canadians who are looking for work, it needs to stop."
With all of this in mind, McGowan says he supports the recent call by Alberta Employment Minister Thomas Lukazsuk to scrap the TFW program and replace it with a more traditional approach to immigration. He also says federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has to do more than talk to employers when he visits Alberta as part of his cross-country tour this summer to discuss immigration issues.
"Employers in Alberta have increasingly become addicted to the TFW program as a way to keep wages low and keep the labour force docile," says McGowan. "If Kenney wants to get a full and more accurate picture of the real impacts of this program, he's going to have to do more than talk to the addicts."
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CONTACT: Gil McGowan, AFL president, 780-218-9888