Canada's image as a safe and secure destination for foreign temporary workers is under fire, critics say.
The government has been working hard in recent years to expand the number of temporary foreign workers who are allowed into Canada to ease what appears to be a growing labour shortage across the country.
But Canada's image as a great place to work and earn a living is being threatened as migrant workers from Mexico who say they are being mistreated are now reaching out to a United Nations special rapporteur for help.
In an interview last month, Jorge Bustamante, UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, told Embassy that over the past six months, he has received about a half-dozen letters directly from Mexican migrant workers in Canada.
In the letters, the workers claim they are not receiving their proper wages and that their freedom of movement is being restricted.
The special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants position was established in 1999 by the former UN Commission on Human Rights.
The rapporteur's role is to enforce the full and effective protection of the human rights of migrants, and in some instances visit countries to further enforce legal frameworks in the interest of migrants.
Mr. Bustamante, who was appointed to the position in August 2005, said that before receiving the letters, he had thought the bilateral migrant worker agreement between Canada and Mexico, inked in 1974, set a good example, but now he has the opposite impression.
"The only thing is my feeling of regret that something that for so many years has gone on without complaints, now all of a sudden there are complaints," he said.
"This is something that was actually quite new to me, because before that I had the opposite impression [of Canada]. But recently I have heard reports from migrants in Canada that have complained about abuses of not allowing them to move from one job to another, their wages and things of that sort."
Mr. Bustamante, a professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame in the United States and founder of a Mexican institute for the study of border issues, said he has sent each letter to the Canadian government. No further actions can be taken without verification of the abuses from the Canadian government, he added.
If and when he receives this verification, a report about the abuses and what steps should be taken in response is submitted to the UN Human Rights Council.
However, as yet, Canadian officials have not provided any response.
"There has been no word at all from the Canadian government," he said. "If I have any kind of credible verification, then I would report it to the UN, but since I have not verified that, then I would not report it."
Asked on Monday how the government would be responding, Human Resources Minister Monte Solberg said he would have to see what the letters say.
"We haven't received any letter from him regarding migrant workers," Mr. Solberg said.
An official in Immigration Minister Diane Finley's office referred questions to the Department of Foreign Affairs. Calls to Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier's office over the past two weeks were not returned.
Reports of abuse and exploitation of migrant workers in Canada have become a concern for many in recent months, especially in light of the country's increasing reliance on such workers.
Just last week, the issue was raised by a witness at the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration during a meeting in Moose Jaw, Sask.
Limits Bring Problems
Testifying before visiting MPs on April 2, Eric Johansen, director of the Saskatchewan government's Immigration Nominee Program, said limits on the ability of migrant workers to move within the labour market puts them at risk.
"Temporary foreign workers are particularly vulnerable in our labour market as they don't have the mobility that other individuals in the labour market do," Mr. Johansen said. "So we think it's very important that we take extra measures to work with this group of individuals, ensure that they understand the protection afforded to them under provincial legislation.
"And we want to find mechanisms to ensure that commitments made by employers to temporary foreign workers are indeed, under a labour market opinion, being followed through."
Also testifying before the committee last week was Yessy Byl, a temporary foreign worker advocate at the Alberta Federation of Labour, who told MPs that brokers and employers are exploiting workers by illegally charging recruitment fees and housing them in poor conditions.
"Alberta's temporary foreign worker program is inherently exploitive and treats people as disposable. I can assure you that Canada's reputation in foreign countries has suffered a great deal," Ms. Byl told committee members.
In response to an increasing number of complaints received by the Alberta Federation of Labour, the advocate position was created last year.
In a six-month report, Ms. Byl, an Edmonton lawyer, reported opening 123 case files for foreign workers. The cases involved migrant workers reporting poor working conditions and lower wages than were promised.
In her conclusion, Ms. Byl wrote that "there are deep and troubling flaws in the program, both in its structure and operation."
"The rapid expansion of the program has been an unqualified disaster and it is the most vulnerable participants-foreign workers-who are feeling the brunt of the pain."
Over the last two years, the Conservative government has expanded the Temporary Foreign Workers program to admit a greater number of workers by easing the bureaucracy Canadian employers have to navigate in order to hire workers from abroad.
Rather than advertise a job for six weeks, most employers need only advertise through the government's "Job Bank" for seven days before seeking workers from abroad.
Tanya Basok, a professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Windsor who has done extensive research on migrant workers, said the restriction on workers' freedom to change jobs is a major issue because under the agreement, these restrictions are not a violation.
Removing this restriction is a fundamental component to improving the program, said Ms. Basok, because workers rely on a good letter of recommendation from their Canadian employers, and a negative review could impede their chances of returning, "leaving many too afraid to speak out against their employer."
Changing Jobs Unrealistic
Rodolfo Diaz, co-ordinator of political and migratory issues at the Mexican Embassy in Ottawa, said that once in the program, workers make a commitment to an employer, and that it is unrealistic to expect they can switch jobs once in Canada.
"That is part of this program, it is temporary, and as any temporary worker you have agreed you are to go back to Mexico," Mr. Diaz said. "We do believe that the program is successful, a great number of workers are re-hired, they have access to pensions from the Canadian government."
Mr. Diaz said there are already mechanisms in place to inform workers of their rights, their due pay, and an emergency number to call for help, such as pamphlets written in English and Spanish handed out upon arrival.
In addition, Mr. Diaz said there are regular meetings between regional and federal officials, and aspects of the program are constantly being reviewed.
He said the Mexican and Canadian governments are very proud of the Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, which started in 1974 and has brought more than 162,000 Mexicans to work in Canada.
From 2002 through 2006, Mr. Diaz said, more than 56,000 workers came through the program; during this time, 73 cases were opened in response to letters from Mexican workers sent to the consulates in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal. Of the complaints received, Mr. Diaz said, most are based on conflicts and disagreements that require mediation, and that they are rarely about pay.
Mr. Diaz would not comment on the matter between the UN rapporteur and the Canadian government, except to say he trusts the Canadian government will respond at the right time.
Liberal Labour critic Judy Sgro, who served as immigration minister from 2003 to 2005, called the situation an embarassment and a black-eye for Canada's reputation.
"For them to refer these issues to the rapporteur at the United Nations, this is not something that's done lightly by any of the people writing," Ms. Sgro said.
"Frankly, I'd like to see an immediate response and an investigation into their complaints. We have an obligation when we let these workers in under various categories, that they have safe working conditions."
NDP Labour critic Libby Davies said the massive increase in the number of foreign workers coming to Canada over the last 10 years has led to serious problems.
"We think the Conservative government must review the foreign workers program," Ms. Davies said. "It is developing so rapidly, there are so many complaints of exploitation, of abuse of foreign workers. There's not been any monitoring or enforcement mechanisms, there has to be a way to track where foreign workers are.
"So if the UN special rapporteur has taken note of it and sent a letter to the government, we're very glad to hear about that; the government needs to take note."
Embassy Canada's Foreign Policy Newsletter, Wed Apr 9 2008
Byline: Michelle Collins
EDMONTON - Alberta's temporary foreign worker program has no oversight and is mired in so much bureaucracy that employers are allowed to treat hopeful immigrants like indentured labour.
That's what a federal committee travelling Canada to examine immigration issues heard in Edmonton on Tuesday during a lengthy meeting in which several interest groups blasted the provincial and federal governments.
"Alberta's temporary foreign worker program is inherently exploitive and treats people as disposable. I can assure you Canada's reputation in foreign countries has suffered a great deal," Yessy Byl of the Alberta Federation of Labour told the committee.
Her comments were echoed by other groups including the Mennonite Centre for Newcomers and Ukrainian Canadian Social Services.
All agreed that temporary foreign worker programs would not be as burdened if the federal immigration department weren't so maddeningly inefficient.
"Of the hundreds of workers I've dealt with in the last two years, almost all have come here not to work but to emigrate," Byl said. "They are using the TFW program because our immigration system is so dysfunctional."
She said there is currently no system by which the workers that are so desperately needed can be legitimized.
"In the meantime, brokers and employers bringing these workers here are running around unchecked, illegally charging recruitment fees, housing workers in homes with up to 14 other people and making huge sums of money renting out houses.
"People are being lured here with the promise of $12 an hour jobs only to arrive and find themselves on the wrong side of the poverty line."
Other speakers said Canadian foreign embassies eastern Europe make it notoriously difficult for people to enter Canada.
"On the one hand we have this great campaign encouraging foreigners to emigrate to Canada, yet on the other hand we have an immigration system that makes that increasingly difficult," said Bill Diachuk of the Ukrainian group.
Truro Daily News, Mon Apr 7 2008
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
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
Just a day before a House of Commons committee meets in Edmonton to discuss the issue of temporary foreign workers, the province revealed it has received more than 800 complaints from foreign labourers in the past 31/2 months.
The most common complaints revolve around perceived unfair wage deductions, fees charged by recruitment agencies and accommodation issues.
"They often don't know their rights, so we're working proactively to help improve that," said Jennifer Raimundo, a spokeswoman for Alberta's employment and immigration department.
Based on complaints from foreign workers to government advisory offices in Calgary and Edmonton, 85 worksites had been investigated by the end of February to make sure employment, health and safety standards were met.
No prosecutions came out of the investigations, Raimundo said, but government inspectors did collect money owed to workers and tried to educate employers about workplace standards.
"They solve the problem while they're there," Raimundo said Monday. "Most employers are very co-operative."
In the months ahead, the province will roll out a previously announced $700,000 ad blitz to inform foreign workers of their rights under Alberta labour and safety laws.
Meanwhile, in Edmonton today, the standing committee on citizenship and immigration holds one of its cross-country hearings on a number of immigration issues, including Iraqi refugees, immigration consultants, undocumented workers and temporary foreign workers.
Particularly in Western Canada, the scarcity of labour is hurting businesses, governments and the non-profit sector.
While the foreign worker program is being used as a stop-gap measure by Ottawa to deal with the issue, and workers are gaining valuable Canadian visas and employment, immigrant groups and unions have often raised ethical questions about importing Canada's workforce on a temporary basis.
Gil McGowan, head of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said the number of complaints the province has received, "shows just how dysfunctional the program is."
The temporary foreign worker program allows outsiders to work in Canada for a limited period if employers demonstrate they can't find suitable Canadian or permanent residents to fill the job.
In recent years, the number of temporary foreign workers flowing into Alberta has increased by leaps and bounds. Service Canada reports that applications for more than 100,000 foreign workers poured into federal offices in Alberta over the past 12 months.
Some stories of promised wages not materializing, over-priced or cramped housing -- forced upon workers by employers -- have emerged, although many are unwilling to come forward and speak publicly. The government has also been forced to investigate complaints of employers charging recruitment fees.
Under provincial law, employment agencies that help employers find staff are not allowed to charge recruiting fees to workers if they conduct any part of their business in Alberta.
McGowan said a lawyer hired by the federation to take temporary foreign workers' complaints in Alberta was so inundated by early requests that her office was forced to restrict its intake to Edmonton alone.
Lyle Tomie, director of Mexi-Can Labour Force, a Calgary recruitment agency, said there are a lot of "shady" recruiters out there. "You get recruiters, and or employers, that aren't obeying the rules."
Tomie said both workers and employers often come into the program with the false information or expectations.
His company tries to address these problems head-on with methods including bringing employers down to Mexico to meet workers before a contract is signed, and talking about living costs in Alberta.
"All those things so they can make an educated decision whether or not to come here. Because if they're coming to work in downtown Calgary for $9 an hour, are you going to get ahead?"
Temporary foreign workers no cure-all: labour leader
Tuesday, April 01, 2008
EDMONTON - Temporary foreign workers are not the magic bullet employers and governments believe them to be, the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour said today.
"Employers and governments have embraced the Temporary Foreign Worker program as a silver bullet to deal with Alberta's increasingly tight labour market, but we'll be demonstrating that the program is failing both Canadians and foreign workers badly," said Gil McGowan.
McGowan and several union representatives plan to address the House of Commons standing committee on citizenship and immigration this afternoon in Edmonton. The committee is holding hearings across the country to gather information for a report on the program.
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 he added they need to be dealt with quickly to secure the province's - and the country's - reputation.
"We need to be transparent in terms of the rules and in terms of the expectations of all parties," Percy said. "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," he said.
Presentations from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers will be made to the committee this afternoon. Both unions represent thousands of workers in the two sectors seeing the most dramatic spikes in the use of temporary foreign workers - the construction and service sectors.
Calgary Herald, Tues Apr 1 2008
Byline: Kelly Cryderman
The Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) held a public forum recently to brief unions about concerns relating to the increase in use of the federal government's temporary foreign worker (TFW) program.
According to figures from the federal department of Citizenship and Immigration, there were 22,392 temporary foreign workers in Alberta in 2006, more than double the 11,067 workers who were in the province in 2003.
TFWs are employed in a wide range of economic sectors in Alberta, including oilsands operations and the construction trades.
In response to this trend, the AFL established a TFW advocate in April 2007 to offer services and assistance, free-of-charge, to foreign workers who are having difficulties at work or immigration.
The advocate is a trained legal professional in Alberta with expertise in employment issues and immigration.
As a result of the expertise developed as an advocate for TFW's in the last year, the AFL held a public forum on March 18 to discuss concerns and trends, as well as give advice to unions.
"Recently, most employers bringing temporary foreign workers into the country were non-union," said Gil McGowan, AFL president. "We held the forum, because we felt the need to give unions more information about the (TFW) program, before unions start dealing with the issue."
According to McGowan, two years ago TFW's worked predominantly in construction. However the mix is starting to change and today TFW's are overwhelmingly in low-skill work, such as cooks and chamber maids.
Another interesting trend is that the City of Calgary and several health authorities have plans to bring in a large number of TFW's.
"It is very unusual that the City of Calgary is doing it. They are looking for trades, with a focus on hiring heavy duty mechanics," said Mike Mahar, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union.
Daily Construction News and Daily Record, Wed Apr 2 2008
Byline: Richard Gilbert
House of Commons committee will get an ear full from labour advocates when MPs visit Edmonton tomorrow to learn about problems with temporary foreign worker program
EDMONTON - Several union spokespeople with extensive experience on issues related to the controversial Temporary Foreign Worker program will make presentations to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration when it visits Edmonton tomorrow afternoon (Tuesday, April 1st).
The committee will hear from Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan as well as the AFL's Temporary Foreign Worker Advocate, Yessy Byl.
In addition, presentations will be made by representatives from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). 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.
"Employers and governments have embraced the TFW program as a silver bullet to deal with Alberta's increasingly tight labour market," says McGowan. "But we'll be demonstrating that the program is failing both Canadians and foreign workers badly."
The committee hearings will take place between 1:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m., April 1, 2008, in the Empire Ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel MacDonald. The hotel is located at 10065-100 Street in downtown Edmonton.
Byl is scheduled to address the committee between 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. McGowan and representatives from UFCW and IBEW will give their presentations between 3:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m.
The cross-country hearings are being held to gather information for a report the Standing Committee is preparing for Parliament on the Temporary Foreign Worker program - which is a program administered by the federal government.
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For more information contact:
Gil McGowan, AFL President @ 780.483-3021 (office) or 780.218-9888 (cell)
The City of Calgary is joining in the rush in Alberta for temporary foreign workers and will be searching overseas for city planners, heavy-duty mechanics and up to 200 bus drivers.
In a first for the city, Mayor Dave Bronconnier and an entourage of city managers and employees will travel to London and Leeds, England, in June to make a pitch for more than 250 temporary foreign workers at a job fair being organized by a private British company, said Cindy Munn, who leads corporate recruitment at the city.
The city is looking at other countries as well -- although it hasn't decided which ones -- and the plan could soon be expanded to include foreign emergency medical workers, she said.
The mayor said Wednesday it's not a new concept to bring city workers in from other countries.
The city had to attract foreign skilled workers, such as planners, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as well.
"I'm not going to put my head in the sand and suggest that we don't have a human resources challenge because we do," Bronconnier said. "If we get the right people, which is what we're looking for, yes, we want to bring them here."
The June trip to the United Kingdom will cost the city about $185,000, Munn said.
The temporary foreign worker program, which allows outsiders to work in Canada for a limited period if employers demonstrate they can't find suitable Canadian or permanent residents to fill the job, has exploded in popularity recently in Alberta, alongside the province's deepening labour shortage.
Service Canada reports that applications for more than 100,000 foreign workers poured into federal offices in Alberta over the past 12 months, mostly for private companies, but also for post-secondary institutions and hospitals.
But the federal program, which has come to include more unskilled workers in recent years, hasn't expanded without controversy.
Labour leaders say bringing in workers from other countries allows employers to keep wages artificially low, and foreigners who are in Canada only at the behest of an employer are more likely to be exploited or abused -- unlike traditional immigrants who are free to get work wherever they chose.
"We are in the process of creating an underclass of disposable workers," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, who said he is disappointed by the city's move towards the temporary foreign worker program.
In the city's case, Munn said, said the workers will be brought to Calgary under the temporary foreign workers program and then move toward citizenship through the provincial nominee program. The city will give the workers help with housing and provide other settlement services, and they will be able to bring their families.
She said the city will continue to try to recruit labour from within Canada. But if all goes well with this first bid, more temporary foreign workers will be brought in.
"We have done a lot of forecasting. And so what we see is that there's going to be significant retirements within the organization over the next five years," Munn said. "We are at the very beginning of what could become an issue."
But already, Calgary Transit is short about 200 drivers and 14 heavy-duty mechanics, said spokesman Ron Collins.
Transit operators receive five weeks of paid training. The starting hourly wage for driving a shuttle bus is $17.68, and for a regular bus it's $20.44, going up to $25.55 an hour in three years -- plus benefits.
"We feel it's a competitive wage," Collins said. "The difficulty is it's a red-hot economy here in Alberta."
But Mike Mahar, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, said he doesn't think the city will have much success in getting people from the U.K. to come to Calgary because the wages are too low and living costs are too high.
"There's a lot of other jobs out there that will pay better that are less stringent. It's a tough job and a lot of people find out shortly that it's not what they thought it was," Mahar said.
But Alan Davies, a licensed immigration consultant in Calgary, said when the economy is good, private sector jobs tend to be more attractive than government work. It's understandable the city wants to bring in temporary foreign workers, too, he said.
"Who is going to come here if we don't have services?" Davies said.
The City of Edmonton, too, was offered the chance to go to the British job fair -- called Opportunities Canada Expo.
However, Helen Ngan-Pare, the head of recruitment for the City of Edmonton, said they will look to hire recent immigrants and refugees instead of temporary foreign workers.
"There's enough of a local labour pool," Ngan-Pare said.
Calgary Herald, Thurs Mar 20 2008
Byline: Kelly Cryderman
The increasing ethnic and racial diversity of the province requires extra vigilance by Albertans against racism and intolerance, says the Alberta Federation of Labour today.
"Thousands of new immigrants and temporary foreign workers are flocking to Alberta as a consequence of our booming economy," says AFL President Gil McGowan. "We need to ensure that all these workers not only enjoy the same rights and protections that current citizens enjoy - but that they are also welcomed into our society."
"That means going beyond mere 'tolerance' of ethnic and racial diversity," says McGowan. "We need to ensure that new Albertans feel safe, welcome and are encouraged to become active members of our communities and broader society."
"The Alberta government can and should do more to protect new Canadian workers' human rights, prevent exploitation and ensure they are treated fairly when they come to our province. That means enforcing workplace regulations scrupulously and providing much more funding to all of the various social agencies and NGOs that work to help their transition into Canadian society."
"The government should lead by example by making it a priority to assist and welcome these new Canadian workers - whether their status is temporary or not," concludes McGowan.
Forty-one years ago, the United Nations declared that March 21st would be the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. This date was chosen to commemorate the Sharpeville Massacre, when in 1960 South African police shot and killed 69 people who were peacefully demonstrating against the apartheid regime.
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For more information contact:
Gil McGowan, AFL President @ 780.483-3021 (office) or 780.218-9888 (cell)
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