Ottawa is eyeing new fines and penalties to protect temporary foreign workers whose rights are being trampled by "unscrupulous" employers and labour brokers, federal Human Resources Development Minister Monte Solberg said on Monday.
Labour leader Gil McGowan calls such workers a "growing underclass" in Alberta -- short-term recruits who may be mistreated by their bosses or are charged hefty and illegal brokerage fees to work here.
The workers are often uncomfortable reporting the abuses, fearful their employers will ship them home, he said.
Solberg admitted he's uneasy that the provincial government is mainly responsible for protecting foreign labourers, since immigration is traditionally federal jurisdiction.
The federal minister warned the problem could hurt Canada's image abroad.
"We have an obligation to protect workers and, frankly, our good reputation as a country that treats people well," Solberg told reporters in Calgary.
"I would say we're today starting to take names, and anybody who we suspect is in a position where they're not treating people well will be held to account."
Solberg would not say what sort of penalties Ottawa would impose on companies guilty of abuses or fraud, but suggested it could refuse any future requests for foreign workers.
Alberta's energy boom has triggered skyrocketing demand for foreign temporary recruits everywhere from the oilfields to restaurant kitchens. In May, Alberta employers requested 8,186 workers -- more than quadruple the requests in May 2006, federal figures show.
The province's Employment, Immigration and Industry department is hiring 39 new staff to help monitor and enforce its labour standards and the Fair Trading Act, currently the main ways to police the foreign workers' program.
Ottawa also wants to boost its capacity to cope with the size of the temporary program, which Solberg said his government wasn't prepared for. "There are unscrupulous people who see that as an opportunity to take advantage of these workers," he said.
Iris Evans, Alberta's employment and immigration minister, said foreign labourers often aren't aware of their rights, sometimes because of language barriers.
"Although the number of complaints is low, this agreement will also help us better monitor the working conditions of foreign workers," she said.
The Alberta and federal governments inked an agreement Monday to share more information on their handling of temporary foreign workers -- an area they fear sometimes falls into the cracks between the two jurisdictions.
McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said talk of penalties seems a small but good step, but both governments must do much more to monitor and root out problems.
The AFL set up a one-man advocacy office to field temporary labourers' complaints in late April and McGowan said he's been swamped with nearly 100 cases. He said the Edmonton office sees just a fraction of the problems Alberta-wide.
Solberg brushed off long-running complaints that the program takes jobs away from Canadians or is a bad alternative to traditional immigration, arguing temporary recruits are the best short-term solution to the current inflated demand.
"The temporary foreign worker program is vital to ensuring that the Canadian economy in general and certainly the Alberta economy can continue to prosper."
Edmonton Journal, Page B5, Tues July 10 2007
Byline: Jason Markusoff