There are nearly twice as many temporary foreign workers in Alberta now as there were at the height of the economic boom.
Newly-released figures from Citizenship and Immigration Canada show that on Dec. 1, 2009, there were 69,000 foreign workers in the province, compared to only 35,000 in 2006.
Alberta's unemployment rate currently sits at 6.6%.
"It doesn't make sense," said Terry Andriuk, head of the temporary foreign worker program at Edmonton's Mennonite Centre for Newcomers.
The head of the Alberta Federation of Labour calls it a "lose-lose situation."
It's been a bad deal for the foreigners, says Gil McGowan, because many are forced to work in poor conditions for low pay that no Canadian would accept. Meanwhile, he says, Canadian workers suffer because the steady supply of foreigners allows employers to keep wages low.
Interestingly, the Alberta government froze the minimum wage at $8.80 per hour earlier this year, arguing that it had no choice in this tough economic climate.
"Canada is a country that was built by immigrants," he says. "But the temporary foreign worker program is not immigration. It's a thinly-disguised guest worker program that creates an under class of exploitable workers."
Recruiters, meanwhile, lure workers to Canada by telling them it's a foot in the door for immigration, says Andriuk, who says some of her clients were told by recruiters in their homeland that they can come here under a temporary visa and work their way to permanent residency.
"It puts entire families in very precarious positions," she says.
Some, from countries like Britain and Germany, sell their homes in anticipation of immigrating. A few have become so distraught that Andriuk has had to refer them to mental health workers.
According to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, employers can only hire temporary foreign workers if "reasonable efforts" have been made to hire a Canadian, but have been unsuccessful.
CIC has five classifications of foreign worker: managerial, professional, skilled and technical, intermediate and clerical, and labourer.
In 2004 there were only 169 TFWs in the unskilled labourer category in Alberta. By 2008 that figure had exploded to 13,445, making it the largest single category.
Andriuk says that in 2008 and 2009, when the economy tanked and temporary foreign workers found themselves out of work, they were initially denied EI, even though they paid for it.
"People in the EI offices didn't even know the rules," she says. "A few groups had to tell them."
Other TFWs had to wait more than year for income tax refunds, which often came long after they were back home.
"And what about their (Canada Pension Plan) contributions?" she says. "Nobody's figured what's going to happen there."
McGowan says the current temporary foreign worker program should be scrapped.
"Some of the horror stories we've been hearing lately in the news shows that it's not working," he says. "If we need these people, we should be bringing them in as prospective citizens, not as disposable workers."
Edmonton Sun, Tues Jun 15 2010
Byline: Andrew Hanlon