Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is under fire from community and labour groups who gathered outside his regional office in Toronto Wednesday to protest his proposed changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker program and what they called the failures of the immigration system.
A few hundred protesters waved union flags and held signs demanding justice for migrant workers and fairness in the workplace.
Two months ago, Kenney announced proposed amendments to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Under the plan, after a cumulative total of four years in Canada, temporary foreign workers would not be eligible to work in Canada for six years.
“The entire framework of the program doesn’t change,” said Chris Ramsaroop of the Coalition for Change, comprised of various community and labour groups. “So really what’s happening is that the government’s going after the most marginalized and vulnerable groups with no attention to employers or recruiters.”
In his October 9 statement, Kenney said employers found to have provided significantly different wages, working conditions or occupations than promised would be prohibited from hiring a temporary foreign worker for two years and will be named on the Citizenship and Immigration website.
“Rather than penalizing bad employers monetarily they want to post their names on a website,” said Ramsaroop. “That could be a violation of privacy laws and even if it is legal I don’t think it’s going to be an effective deterrent.”
“The regulatory changes being proposed today are the result of extensive consultations and address the most significant concerns identified through that process,” said Kenney. “This reflects the fact that the program is designed to address short-term labour market shortages and is not a solution to long-term labour needs.”
Sima Zerehi of the Coalition for Change accused the Tories of implementing regressive immigration changes that will mean “bad news” for immigrant communities and workers.
“Once their four years is up they’ll be thrown out as disposable tools,” said Zerehi, who claimed that the number of temporary foreign workers now outstrips the number of permanent residents entering Canada.
The Coalition believes that Canada’s immigration system should be based upon five guiding principles:
- permanent residency status for everyone;
- abolish recruitment fees to work in Canada;
- equal access to healthcare, unemployment insurance, CPP and OAS;
- equal access to provincial and federal labour and human rights laws; and
- stop the deportations and repatriations of undocumented, temporary and migrant workers.
Every year, over 90,000 foreign workers enter Canada to work temporarily in jobs that help Canadian employers address skill shortages, or as live-in caregivers.
“With their sweat and hard work these so called temporary workers are keeping Canada’s economy strong,” said Avvy Go, Client Director of the Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic.
“But these small changes to protect workers are clearly overshadowed by the new negative measure which bars temporary workers from working in Canada for six years after working for a cumulative period of four years.”
That, say immigration activists, will keep temporary foreign workers “forever temporary” with no chance of ever becoming a Canadian citizen.
Last month, the Winnipeg Sun reported that Auditor General Sheila Fraser “slammed the way the government is handling the immigration backlog and the temporary foreign worker program.”
“The comments come after Fraser tabled a report Tuesday that sharply criticized the immigration department on several fronts, saying a number of key decisions in recent years weren’t properly assessed before they were introduced,” said the Sun. “For example, Fraser said surveillance of the temporary foreign workers program is so lax that work permits could be issued for jobs that don’t exist and workers could be vulnerable to abuse by employers.”
Pura Velasco, an organizer with the Caregivers Action Centre, said, “Real protection for migrant workers means providing migrants with dignity by giving them permanent residency on arrival.”
“We’re helping the Canadian economy so why should we be banned,” said a migrant worker (in a statement read by Chris Ramsaroop) in response to the proposed ban from Canada after four years of work, who works in a processing plant in southwestern Ontario.
Most migrant workers come to Canada to make enough money to support their children and families back home. “If they come here for four years and go back for six, they’ll have nothing.”
“We know the changes will not provide fairness,” said Marie Clarke Walker, Canadian Labour Congress Executive VP. “We know it will favour employers and labour brokers.”
She alleged that Kenney only consulted with two workers directly affected by the proposed changes. “Last time I checked that wasn’t any kind of consultation,” she said.
Many migrants have left behind family, children and friends to work and live in Canada, hoping to eventually live here as permanent citizens. Low skilled, live-in caregivers and skilled workers are looking forward to a brighter future.
“Unfortunately, when you arrive here you become a prisoner of your employer,” said another migrant worker in a statement read by Chris Ramsaroop. “Employers take advantage of the work permit limitation to only work for them.”
Some employers see this as an opportunity to take advantage of their foreign workers.
In response, members of No One is Illegal, a group of immigrants, refugees and allies who fight for the rights of all migrants to live with dignity and respect, “pushed” their way into a press conference Tuesday with Jason Kenney.
“We stood up and asked, ‘Who the hell was part of this consultation’,” said Fariah Chowdhury of No One is Illegal. “Were temporary workers consulted? Were migrants consulted? Were undocumented and non-status people consulted? Were refugees consulted?”
Kenney allegedly refused to respond.
“He just stood there and said, ‘Um…um’ and then fixed his tie,” said Chowdhury. “And then his public relations person came to the mic and said, ‘This press conference is over now.’”
Chowdhury accused Kenney of “being too cowardly to talk about the real issues that migrants face.” She called him an “anti-immigrant” Minister and claimed that since the Conservative government came to power deportations and detentions have increased while immigrant service organizations have faced funding cuts.
“No matter how hard they work, they are considered to be outsiders,” she said. “When migrant workers labeled temporary workers are told to leave Canada after four years of employment, this is a deportation.”
Acting executive director Karin Baqi of the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario (SALCO) said, “SALCO is recently and increasingly seeing more people with precarious immigration status, including people under the Temporary Foreign Workers program.”
Since 1999, SALCO has been working to establish a permanent legal clinic to serve the growing needs of low-income South Asians in a culturally and linguistically sensitive manner.
A few weeks ago, Baqi recalled, a client was “forced” to quit his job because he was allegedly facing unfair, illegal and inhumane working conditions. As a result, he lost his status and fell into poverty. Another client who is facing ongoing threats from his employer to report him to immigration authorities (even though he has temporary status) is afraid of losing his status.
“There’s not much he can do without our solidarity in fighting these kinds of changes,” she said.
If these proposed changes are adopted, the federal government will become the largest temp agency in Canada, said Winnie Ng of the Good Jobs Coalition.
The Good Jobs for All Coalition is an alliance of community, labour, social justice, youth and environmental organizations in the Toronto region. It was formed in 2008 to start a focused dialogue on how to improve living and working conditions in Canada’s largest urban centre.
Ng said, “Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney will be the CEO’s of this temp agency that will bring in foreign workers, use them, abuse them and then let them go.”