When Yessy Byl arrived in Canada from the Netherlands, she was just a toddler. Her father found work as a bush pilot, bringing his family with him around the country as he moved from job to job, even working as an air ambulance pilot up and down the icy coasts of Labrador.
The contributions made by Byl's father and other bush pilots, many of whom were immigrants, to the formation of Canada is now irrefutable, but their jobs were often low-paying and never easy. So it seems poetically just that Byl, now 58, finds herself in the position of Temporary Foreign Worker Advocate for the Alberta Federation of Labour.
And with an economic recession and layoffs looming, she thinks there's no better time than now to start considering the rights of foreign workers.
"[Their conditions] are just horrible on all fronts," Byl says. "The whole regime of Temporary Foreign Workers is a very badly thought-out policy. There is no enforcement, no rights protection in place."
She adds that even the term "foreign worker" is itself a misnomer. "I've come to think that the [Canadian] government has set up failure and racism by calling these people 'temporary foreign workers.' All the foreign employees I've worked with don't consider themselves temporary at all. They came here to integrate and contribute to Canadian society, bring up their children here."
Byl's own experience with foreign workers is extensive. She has worked predominantly as a labour lawyer around Alberta since her graduation from the University of Calgary's law school in 1980, often working with employees under the classification of temporary foreign worker. She has since settled in the Highlands community, bordering the North Saskatchewan's northern banks in the east end of the city.
According to Byl, foreign workers in Alberta right now are facing a multi-front attack. Employers seeking non-citizen employees are required to obtain a labour market opinion, which is non-transferable, and can make finding other work difficult. Also, foreign workers are often the first victims of layoffs, which she decries as outright racism, and have families they're supporting in their home country, draining them of the "savings cushion" most citizens can rely on.
"Not only are temporary workers being laid off, they're being told they have to be laid off first, which is grossly unfair because that's discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin or country of origin," Byl said. "When recessions come around, all those really terrible tendencies start to come out in people and they say, 'They're temporary; send them home.'"
But despite a bleak outlook on working conditions themselves, Byl still finds opportunities to feel optimistic. Browsing through a list of former clients from her time as a labour lawyer, there are many faces she lists as deported, but there are still a few who have found their place as residents here in Alberta.
Profile, Thurs Apr 30 2009
Byline: Sean Steels