Temporary foreign workers: a growing reality. But is it the right one?

How immigration policy is increasingly being used by governments and businesses to address labour market needs, and the debates these policies have given rise to.

In this 4-part series, The Independent looks under the surface of the rhetoric surrounding this province's 'labour shortage' to piece together a series of snapshots of the shifting terrain of the labour market in Newfoundland and Labrador. Part I can be found here.

Supply & Demand: Part II

When the provincial government launched its Immigration Strategy in 2007, the mission was clear:

"Other jurisdictions in Canada and around the world are aggressively pursuing increased levels of immigration to counter the impact of aging populations and low birth rates," said Shawn Skinner, minister responsible at the time. "We have our own unique advantages to offer – a quality of life second to none in this country, a natural environment the envy of the world, and most importantly a welcoming society and strong sense of shared community."

Well, that we know. But for companies worried about potential labour shortages, just how easy is it to hire non-Canadian workers?

When it comes to active recruitment of foreign workers, there are two main methods that governments and employers have at their disposal. The first is the Provincial Nominee Program (PNP). Under this program, the provincial government can apply to the federal government to grant specific individuals and family members rights to live and work in the province. When the Immigration Strategy was adopted in 2007, the provincial government dramatically increased its sponsorship of immigrants under the PNP – from 105 nominations in 2007 to 253 the following year, an increase of 140%. In 2010, the government nominated 309.

The big question from an immigration perspective is whether those individuals then choose to stay and settle in this province. With well over half of sponsored immigrants choosing to stay (59.7% in 2008, and 67.3% in 2009), provincial Human Resources, Labour and Employment Minister Darin King says he's quite pleased.

"Most of the people are staying and making their homes in Newfoundland and Labrador." —Darin King

"Most of the people are staying and making their homes in Newfoundland and Labrador. We do interviews with all our nominees, and we're getting positive feedback about how they're filling in. They say without question that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians open their hearts and homes to them, and they've never experienced such a welcoming community."

"It's a good success story, no doubt about it. The PNP is a big part of our strategy – since 2007 we've nominated more than 1300 people. They come from 75-80 different countries, and they're spread out among 50 different communities...we're quite pleased. We're seeing two very positive outcomes: one is that these people are coming in and causing a positive contribution to our communities and businesses where they're working. But they're also fitting into the broader community. Any time we incorporate non-Newfoundlanders into our communities, especially our rural communities, it has a positive impact. It enables those communities to learn about other cultures, and to learn so much."

More controversial: Temporary Foreign Workers

The other method of recruiting foreign workers is much more controversial. Although it has traditionally seen little use in this province, the Temporary Foreign Worker program has become the dominant mechanism for bringing foreign workers to most other provinces. Under this program, employers can apply directly to the federal government for permission to recruit foreign workers abroad. Their application has to state that they were unable to find local workers to fill the jobs, and that they are willing to pay at least average local labour market wages to any foreign worker they hire (those wage rates are set by the federal government for each occupation and vary by region). If the federal government approves the application, then the employer can advertise and hire workers from outside of Canada. In recent years, as employers in other provinces began recruiting literally hundreds of thousands of foreign workers through this program, recruitment agencies have cropped up to act as go-betweens, supplying firms with ready armies of foreign workers once their application is approved.

Last year, Citizenship and Immigration Canada reported 1394 temporary foreign workers were present in Newfoundland and Labrador. While only comprising 1.2% of all temporary foreign workers in Canada, this is a 52% increase from the provincial numbers five years ago. More than three-quarters of temporary foreign workers in this province are employed outside of St. John's. Although the program is designed to only allow temporary employment for foreign workers (new federal regulations put a cap of four years on the length any of them may stay in the country, and they must then wait four years before applying again) under limited conditions some may be eligible to apply for various permanent residency programs. Outside of the US and UK, China and the Philippines are the dominant suppliers of temporary workers to this province. Although they're spread across a range of occupations and skill levels, the most common professions in which temporary foreign workers were employed (in 2010) were petroleum engineers, specialist physicians, cooks, food service counter attendants and food preparers. There's also been a dramatic growth in nannies since 2007.

"In Newfoundland and Labrador in 2007 we brought in 103 temporary foreign workers. 80 of them would have been cooks...we brought in 13 food counter attendants and helpers, and 6 chefs." —Luc Erjavic

While the numbers are still small compared to other provinces (Ontario alone had almost 100,000 temporary foreign workers last year) use of temporary foreign workers stands poised to grow in Newfoundland and Labrador. Luc Erjavic, Atlantic Canada Vice-President with the Canadian Food and Restaurant Association, indicated they're part of the strategy which that industry is looking at to fill projected shortages in this province over the next few years. His industry has been seeing shortages for cooks in work camps, as well as the lower-paid (non-tip) positions in restaurants: line-cooks, dishwashers, and sous-chefs, what he referred to as 'back of house'. He said over the next 10 years his association predicts demand for 2700 new jobs in this province in their industry. As demand grows, and employers are unable to find local workers willing to fill advertized jobs, they are beginning to look toward temporary foreign workers.

"I think people would be shocked to learn that temporary foreign workers are being used...In Newfoundland and Labrador in 2007 we brought in 103 temporary foreign workers. 80 of them would have been cooks...we brought in 13 food counter attendants and helpers, and 6 chefs."

"It's becoming more and more prevalent, it's really hard to sometimes attract people."

Richard Alexander, President of the Newfoundland and Labrador Employers' Council, had a similar perspective.

"It's one solution. And that solution works for some better than others. There's no magic bullet to solve the challenges, but temporary foreign workers are one option that works for some industries. I would expect we'll see more of it. "

Dr. Doug May, an economist at Memorial University who specializes in labour mobility, also expects employers to look at the use of temporary foreign workers with growing interest.

"If you can't get Canadian workers or residents at the wage rate you want, then you'd go elsewhere. Human behavior is constant, so if you or I wanted a cheaper car or cheaper book, and we can get it in the US, and there's no restrictions, we'll go to the US."

"It might work out for the employer's benefit...but some of the temporary losers in this could be the workers who don't get the job at the wage rate they'd like. There will be a downward pressure on wages."

Downward pressure – a downward spiral?

This downward pressure is precisely what labour federations are concerned about. But it's not their only concern with the program.

Gil McGowan is the President of the Alberta Federation of Labour. His province has experienced a dramatic growth in use of temporary foreign workers, from just over 20,000 five years ago to 57, 774 in 2010 (it peaked at a high of over 65,000 in 2009). Alberta's experience with the program, he says, was disastrous.

"The Temporary Foreign Worker program is a train wreck, plain and simple. It doesn't work for the foreign workers, it doesn't work for Canadian workers, and increasingly it's becoming apparent that it doesn't even work for employers. It was an ill-conceived and poorly thought out response to a tight labour market in Alberta during the boom, but five or six years of experience has made it clear that simply opening the floodgates for disposable workers isn't the best solution to the problem."

"The Temporary Foreign Worker program is a train wreck, plain and simple. " —Gil McGowan

The program, he explains, was introduced decades ago to allow in small groups of high-skilled workers. It was never designed to meet large-scale labour shortages, until the Liberal government of Paul Martin and Conservative government of Stephen Harper redesigned the program with the intent of bringing in hundreds of thousands of short-term foreign workers, including many in low-skilled positions. In response to the flood, the AFL found itself dealing with so many cases of labour violations it had to create designated positions to deal solely with the problems foreign workers were experiencing. The AFL wants the entire program scrapped – a call echoed by some community groups, for instance the Kalayaan Filipino Community Centre in Vancouver.

"We've been able to document literally hundreds of cases of temporary foreign workers who've had their rights in the workplace ignored and undermined: everything from wages that have not been paid, or where they wound up paid less than they were promised, hundreds of cases of workers being asked to pay exorbitant fees to brokers for the privilege of getting a low wage job. In some cases workers were brought in to work in the service sector, paying $6000 to a broker. These fees are illegal but they're being charged anyway."

But what about locally?

Minister King said the provincial government hasn't seen any indication of these types of abuses occurring in this province – yet.

"We have not. I'm not hearing what you're suggesting...what we've typically seen in Newfoundland and Labrador is that it has traditionally been highly skilled professionals. We're starting to see in lower skilled fields more people coming in and I'm not surprised. I'm not surprised to see more people availing of those opportunities. At this point in time we've only seen the employment of temporary foreign workers as a good opportunity for Newfoundland and Labrador. It's enabled us to fill a gap that would have otherwise been quite a challenge."

"It's enabled us to fill a gap that would have otherwise been quite a challenge. " —Darin King

Some provinces have begun bringing in legislation specifically targeted at protecting temporary foreign workers from the abuses that are being reported. When a company in PEI was caught in 2008 making foreign workers do different jobs from those they'd been approved for, their government tabled legislation imposing harsher penalties on companies that violated the rules. In 2010 Ontario passed legislation banning recruitment companies from charging fees to the workers they bring in. King says protective legislation is not something that this province has considered.

"Not at this point in time. We haven't looked at any legislation like that."

"We pay close attention...For anybody that's employed in the province, it's very important to us to ensure that labour standards are followed, whether they're foreign workers or not. We do ensure that labour standards will be followed."

McGowan is skeptical.

"That's what we heard from our labour minister at the front end of the process five or six years ago, but those reassurances simply weren't enough to stop the abuse."

He said the problem is that enforcement of labour standards in most provinces is complaints driven: unless a worker makes a complaint, action is rarely taken and employers are rarely investigated.

"Because of their tenuous position in the country, temporary foreign workers are unlikely to complain. And this is especially true the lower down the skill ladder you go. Our experience is the higher skilled temporary foreign workers are less likely to put up with being pushed around and abused, but the temporary foreign workers being brought in to serve coffee and change sheets in hotel rooms, they almost never complain. It's one thing to say the complaints will be dealt with seriously, but the reality is most of these workers, even if they are facing situations of obvious abuse, they very rarely complain."

As a result of pressure from the AFL, the Alberta government conducted a series of random spotchecks on workplaces where temporary foreign workers were being used. They discovered that 72% of employers were violating labour laws.

"In cases which were found, action was taken, but this was only a sample. Government didn't follow up with a beefed-up enforcement system. It was a sample that proved there was a problem, but no action was taken."

Lessons for Newfoundland and Labrador?

McGowan warns that provinces which haven't become reliant on the program should avoid using it to respond to labour shortages.

"Experiences in places like Alberta over the past five years show the dramatic expansion of the program has been an abject failure for everybody involved. The bottom line for us is if we need these workers, then they should be brought into the country as citizens or prospective citizens, as opposed to disposable workers who are vulnerable and subject to abuse. It's bad news for the foreign workers themselves, but it's also bad news for Canadian workers because those foreign workers are being used as pawns to drag down wages and conditions for everybody in the labour market."

"My advice to the Newfoundland and Labrador government would be to proceed with caution and learn the lessons from places like Alberta." —Gil McGowan

"My advice to the Newfoundland and Labrador government would be to proceed with caution and learn the lessons from places like Alberta that have four or five years of very bad experience with the temporary foreign worker program...and do everything in your power not to repeat them."

McGowan's counterpart in this province – Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour President Lana Payne – says that concerns about the Temporary Foreign Worker program are very much on their radar.

"This has been going on in Alberta and B.C. for some time, and this is a program that allows for incredible abuse to happen and for people's rights to be trampled on. I find this program, the way it's been structured and used, it's very offensive, and in many ways we're abusing human rights with this program. It needs to be totally revamped...We have no tracking system, we don't know where these workers are, how do we find out if their rights are being abused? How do they even find out what their rights are?"

"The other challenge we have, which is what concerns me the most about the Temporary Foreign Worker program, is that...it seems like an easy way to get people here, but what about the other folks out there? Have we done enough to tap into the labour force that we already have? Are we offering the training programs to help people who might be out of work due to oversupply?...We want to make sure we're not only protecting these people, but also that we don't have backlash against immigrants."

"You have to monitor this, make sure people's rights are not being violated, make sure our labour standards protect foreign workers. How do we reach out to these people, when we don't even know where they are? There's an onus on us to see these people are not abused, but also to tell the federal government that you can't just bring these people here because it's a way to suppress wages, to not retrain people. That will create division."

The Ontario experience

Ontario's economy has become heavily reliant on temporary foreign workers as well. Deena Ladd is a spokesperson for the Workers Action Centre in Ontario, one of the key organizations supporting temporary foreign workers in that province. She says Ontario's experience with the program should also be taken as a warning by Newfoundland and Labrador. She said they deal with many cases of complaints from temporary foreign workers being brought in to work in restaurant kitchens, or in the tourism industry in rural Ontario.

Ladd says it shouldn't be surprising these workers are afraid to speak out.

"If you've given your life savings to come to Canada, even if somebody's not paying you properly, you're not going to speak out. You're massively in debt, you've got your family to support back home – at least this is money. You have to survive and put food on the table back home."

"People are not going to speak out and when they do, the stories will be pretty horrific...one of the biggest things people tell us is 'I can't say anything because I will lose my ability to stay in this country.' When you do that, you are leaving the system ripe for abuse. It's indentured servitude. People do not have the ability to speak out freely. When even workers who are Canadian are reluctant to speak out and form unions, how on earth do you expect someone to speak out about something when they can be deported the next day?"

"In some cases the recruitment agencies are asking for huge recruitment fees. We've had restaurant workers pay $3000-$5000 to work in a restaurant. Live-in caregivers have paid $5000-$10,000 to recruitment agencies to come to the country. Sometimes then they arrive at the airport and find there is no job. So then the border patrol sends them back to their country. Or the recruitment agency picks the workers up from the airport, but because they have no job they're completely reliant on the agency. The agency makes them work wherever it wants, they have their travel documents taken away from them, they have no rights."

Ladd's Centre is currently helping a temporary foreign worker take her employer to court. That employer hired a Ugandan woman and forced her to live in their house as a caregiver for two years, paying her only $2100 for the entire two years.

Creating divided communities

Ladd also had a warning for this province.

"I think it's really important to learn from the lessons of different provinces, and in particular the implications for workers. It's not just about meeting a short-term labour gap, it's about how you're building Newfoundland and Labrador as a province. It's not just a short-term question, but a long-term one about how you want your community to develop...if your province is looking at immigration policies to bring people in, it needs to be not just a fill-the-gap approach, but how does it build our communities, bring families and workers into our province, make our province their home. And not just as disposable labour."

"It's not a question of employers saying we need a disposable workforce, it's the communities saying we want to have people come and settle in our province. We don't want people coming in here being treated as disposable labour, we want them to be part of our community, we want them to bring their families...there's some larger questions there in terms of bigger Canadian values that need to be looked at. If employers are allowed to do this without any checks and balances, what we've seen happening is what will happen in your province too."

She said another problem that's been encountered with the program in Ontario is that it often winds up dividing communities.

"Instead of the focus being on employers who decide to hire people in this way, the people from small towns are getting mad at the workers who are coming in and taking their jobs..." —Deena Ladd

"We've had people phone us from small towns in northern Ontario in the tourism areas, where I think it's also about causing divisions among people. Instead of the focus being on employers who decide to hire people in this way, the people from small towns are getting mad at the workers who are coming in and taking their jobs...the employer is saying 'It's not our fault, it's the labour market.' The anger is at the worker, not the employer. So you have divisions in communities. It's a smokescreen for the real issue, which is that if there's a high unemployment rate, the employer has the responsibility to put in training and apprenticeship programs to train workers...They cannot expect a just-in-time disposable labour force to be at their fingertips, to bring in 100 workers from the Philippines tomorrow under all these conditions, and meanwhile the community all around them are struggling to find employment and are living in poverty. So in those cases the workers in the community turn on the workers coming from abroad. The employers have the responsibility to train local people so they can learn the skills."

In PEI, such tensions arose last month between hundreds of Canadian workers laid off from Ocean Choice fish processing factories, and hundreds of temporary foreign workers brought in by the same company.

Recruiting agencies picking up steam in this province

Lewis Efford is the owner and manager of Progressive Management Consulting, which among other services has recently begun forming partnerships with overseas recruitment agencies to provide temporary foreign workers to companies that need them in Newfoundland and Labrador. He's been in contact with Filipino, Jamaican and East European agencies, to supply workers in a range of professions from mechanics, truck drivers, and caregivers to health care professionals.

"We're talking to [local] companies telling us they can't find a lot of the skilled tradespeople they need, and also engineers and medical professionals. So we're gearing up to meet that demand. What we're seeing is in the immediate and short-term future there's going to be a big demand for foreign workers."

He's aware of the problems and abuses that have occurred with the Temporary Foreign Worker program in other provinces, and said he was very adamant that his company would work to avoid them. For instance, he said it's a firm rule of his company that they only charge fees to the corporations hiring the foreign workers, not to the workers themselves.

"We're certainly aware that has happened in other provinces, but we can't tarn all recruiters with one brush. There are unscrupulous people in every trade. But we live by our word and we look at these people, and they are people, and they have families, and they need respect and we respect them and try and treat them fairly. We told our partners in other countries from day one that we would not charge the workers any fees at all. We said that if they tried to charge any fees to the workers coming in, that we would drop our partnership with them just like that. We feel that's wrong and we won't have any part of it."

The Association for New Canadians (ANC) which is funded by the provincial government, also points out that it already provides a free service to employers looking to hire foreign workers. In 1995 the ANC established Axis Career Services, a division which specializes in linking foreign workers with employers.

"Right now there are a lot of skills shortages in technologies and trades, because the local workforce has been so migratory, and because getting employees to stay in Newfoundland and Labrador can be challenging." —Danni Yetman

"Employers don't realize it's so easy," said Danni Yetman, who works with Axis. "These workers are here and legally entitled to work and ready to work. The Temporary Foreign Worker program can be really complicated, but here they have a vast pool of labour at our disposal."

She acknowledged a growing demand for foreign workers.

"Right now there are a lot of skills shortages in technologies and trades, because the local workforce has been so migratory, and because getting employees to stay in Newfoundland and Labrador can be challenging. So employers are trying to diversify their workforce by turning to immigrants."

A provincial problem under federal jurisdiction

Addressing problems with the Temporary Foreign Worker program is difficult in part because it's under federal jurisdiction, even though provinces have to deal with its effects.

"I think what's really difficult about this issue is all these policies are being made at the federal level," Ladd explained. "It's difficult because your labour laws are provincial but your immigration laws are federal. So you're trying to change things and you have provincial governments that don't get along with the federal government...so I think the real movement has to come from people pushing from below, and to make it a public issue in the community.

"And it does feel like an uphill battle. People don't want to talk about it and they don't want to learn from past mistakes."

She said it's ironic that the governments of Canada and Newfoundland and Labrador both recently issued apologies for imposing a head-tax on Chinese workers a hundred years ago, who were also sometimes denied permanent settlement rights.

"Why are we doing this again? Do we want to have to apologize in 60 years for gross misconduct and human rights abuses? This is a headtax, but in a different way. The effect is exactly the same. It's stopping people from actually becoming residents of this country, even though they contribute to building our communities and working for our employers. It's quite a dangerous road and it's quite worrying for many of us."

Payne acknowledges the contradictions of the federal-provincial roles in the program.

"This is a program that's designed and administered by the federal government – they don't have to consult with the provincial government about what they're doing with it – yet that contradicts the fact that the federal government says the provinces are in charge of the labour market...From the provincial government's view they're trying to deal with the cards that they've been dealt. We've been telling the provinces: you're the overseers of a flawed program, so the provinces have to say 'we want this to be changed'."

"We've done a really good job in Canada saying that we're an open and welcoming country and trying to approach immigration from a citizenship point of view. The Temporary Foreign Worker program is not about citizenship. That's the problem with it. It's rife for abuse and we really really should rethink this. I think the provincial governments have a role to put pressure on Ottawa to say this is going to be an increasing, growing challenge for all of us. And as provincial governments who have control of the labour market, they should be saying 'we get to have a say in this too'."

For profiles of foreign workers complied by Hans Rollmann read New Newfoundlanders

theindependent.ca, Mon July 4 2011

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