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Hill Dispatches

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Karl Nerenberg has been reporting on federal politics from Parliament Hill for rabble.ca since September, 2011. In his long career, he has won numerous awards as a broadcaster and documentary filmmaker.

RBC and the Harper government's double message on 'guest workers'

| April 8, 2013
RBC and the Harper government's double message on 'guest workers'

The Royal Bank of Canada is furiously spinning a story about who is really responsible for bringing in foreign temporary workers to replace some of its Canadian employees.

It is not us, says the Bank. It is the outsourcing company we hired, U.S. incorporated "iGATE," a company that does most of its business in India. We trusted iGATE to abide by the rules, the Bank's spokespeople say, and if they did not, you cannot blame us.

For those who were under the impression that most temporary foreign workers in Canada were picking fruit or slinging coffee at donut shops, the facts of the Royal Bank affair should come as a revelation.

The workers in this case are in the high skilled field of information technology (IT). It is a field in which there is both more and more outsourcing and more and more use of what the Europeans call "guest workers."

In the current case, 45 Royal Bank IT workers have been ordered to train imported workers from India who will soon replace them.

The imported replacements are in Canada on temporary foreign workers' visas, but will move back to India, eventually, where all of this IT work is to be outsourced.

Harper's Ministers rush to show concern (but how sincere?)

When CBC broke the Royal Bank story on Sunday, April 7, two Harper cabinet ministers (Jason Kenney, Immigration, and Diane Finley, Human Resources) quickly jumped into the breach to express the government's grave concern.

Temporary foreign worker visas are not to be used as a means to lay off Canadian workers, the two Ministers said. The temporary foreign worker program is only to be used, say Finley and Kenney, to fill gaps in the Canadian labour market.

Organized labour has been suspicious about the entire temporary foreign program for a while now, especially after, almost a year ago, the government quietly allowed businesses to pay foreign workers 15 per cent less than Canadians.

The labour movement suspects that part of the goal of the temporary foreign worker program is to depress wages in Canada.

As of last year, there were over 300,000 temporary foreign workers in Canada, and they were coming in at rate of about 190,000 per year. That is close to the total number of immigrants who arrive in any given year.

And while the two senior Harper government Ministers were quick to disassociate themselves from what the Royal Bank is doing in this instance, the government seems to have a double message on this question.

On the one hand, it tells Canadians as a whole that the government seeks to limit and strictly regulate business' use of "guest workers," with the goal of assuring that none replace Canadian workers.

It has another story for the business community, however.

One of the key recommendations of the Conservatives' hand-picked "Red Tape Reduction Commission" was that the government should make it easier, simpler and less "burdensome" for firms to hire temporary foreign workers.

When that recommendation arrived at its door, the federal Human Resources Ministry promptly promised to act.

It pledged to "improve the administration of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to reduce burden on business and improve predictability. The program involves four federal regulators and businesses are required to fill out multiple forms and provide supporting documentation to more than one department as part of the program. These recurring information demands will be reduced..."

Given all the different types of red tape that businesses must deal with, some might find it a bit strange that the government should have zoned in, with such intense focus, on the temporary foreign worker system.

One could hardly be blamed for wondering if there had not been a great deal of pressure from some sectors of the business community to loosen the rules and regulations governing the use of guest workers.

Now, after the Royal Bank revelations, some might be asking if the government might not have gone a bit overboard in reducing the "burden" on businesses that employ foreign workers.

The government says, today, that the folks who came here to take the jobs of Royal Bank's workers should not have been given visas for that purpose.

The question is: how did it happen? Who, on the government side, was not paying close attention? And how widespread is this sort of abuse?

Royal Bank will provide 'career transition'

As for the Royal Bank, it is sticking by its claim that, believe it or not, the whole mess is entirely the outsourcing company's fault. That outsourcing company is, for now, not talking.

Of course, the Bank does not pretend that it had any other plans but to ship the work of this group of 45 IT employees overseas.

While getting visas for workers to come to Canada and displace Canadians is not permitted, there is no rule, whatsoever, against outsourcing work to another country. That happens every day.

The cruel fact is that the Bank was planning to shed this group of workers, one way or the other. If it had done so without the intermediate step of bringing in foreign workers, temporarily, to learn the ropes from the soon-to-be-laid-off Canadians, it would all be according to Hoyle, and the rest of us might be none the wiser.

On that matter, the Bank's only response is to say that "initiatives that impact our employees are always difficult. When employees are affected, we work with them to find new roles ..."

Finding those "new roles" is not always possible, of course.

In such cases, the Bank says, "we provide affected employees with assistance to support them in their career transition."

That must be very comforting to the Royal Bank's employees. But what do the bank's Canadian customers think of this sort of practice?

The initial reaction from at least some is that they will be taking their business elsewhere. 

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