A number of unions in B.C. and Alberta were given little or no notice about sharing their opinions with the government on the federal temporary worker (TFW) program.
However, some groups were called upon to give a short presentation before a House of Commons Committee examining problems with the program.
The House of Commons Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration is traveling across the country between March 31 and April 17 to gather information from the public about several important immigration issues including Iraqi refugees, temporary foreign workers, undocumented workers and immigration consultants.
The committee plans to visit 11 cities and hear from workers, employers, community organizations, academics and researchers, and provincial representatives.
"The demand for temporary foreign workers has increased considerably in recent years and shows no sign of slowing. At the same time, many workers labour here without legal status," stated a federal government press release dated March 19.
It addressed the TFW program and stated that the study will seek lessons learned from long-standing programs, as well as strengths and weaknesses of recent developments.
The committee seeks to hear from individuals who can contribute to their understanding of this issue.
Even though the federal government's stated aim was to gather information on the TFW program, union representatives from the British Columbia and Yukon Territory Building and Construction Trades Council (BCYT-BCTC) were not even informed about the committee and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local (IBEW) Union 424 Edmonton was given short notice to appear.
Despite this fact, both unions made a seven-minute presentation to the committee and put together a brief submission, which outlined their position and made recommendations.
"Temporary foreign workers are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, because of their work permit restrictions to a single employer, language barriers, lack of understanding of their rights, worry about their immigration status and unequal power relationship and dependence on their employer for income and information," said Wayne Peppard, executive directors of the BCYT-BCTC in his submission to the committee on March 31.
"The BCYT-BCTC is not opposed to the importation of foreign workers when there is a proven shortage of Canadian workers and provided these workers are not used as a cheap source of labour."
One union representative from Alberta agreed that the growth of the Alberta economy is putting a strain on labour availability, but he criticized the TFW program for abandoning the idea that local people should be hired first.
"We believe that there are enough electricians across Canada to deal with upcoming construction," said IBEW representative Bill Begemann, in his submission to the Committee. "We need only to look at the training system and the available manpower pools to come up with viable solutions."
Another union representative from Alberta argued that the TFW program is being used as a first choice to fill vacancies and to hire whole crews of hundreds of workers.
"Alberta has become ground zero for what is essentially a huge social and economic experiment - an experiment that we think is in the process of going horribly wrong," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, in a submission to the committee in Edmonton on April 1.
McGowan estimates there were at least 50,000-60,000 TFW's in Alberta in 2007.
The union reps from B.C. and Alberta argued that the TFW program is characterized by broken promises, exploitation, unsafe working conditions, racism, unfair pay, intimidation and threats of deportation.
Some of the recommendations made by the unions to the committee include: setting up a royal commission to investigate the issue of TFW's and undocumented workers; allocate significant resources for monitoring and enforcing Labour Market Opinion agreements; set up advocacy centres to help TFWs get information and get assistance with abusive or exploitive employers; allow TFWs to obtain permanent residency after two years; prohibit the charging of fees by brokers and employers and make sure permits allow TFWs to switch employers without penalty.
Journal of Commerce, Wed Apr 9 2008
Byline: Richard Gilbert