Canada's temporary foreign worker program is in the media spotlight this month, thanks to the growing outcry over a B.C. mining company's plan to import hundreds of temporary Chinese labourers and a human rights complaint recently filed by a group of Mexican workers against their former Canadian employer. The light being cast on the program is unflattering, to put it mildly.
As details of the Chinese miner case emerge, it's shaping up to be a perfect illustration of how the temporary foreign worker program has become an easy way for companies to bypass the domestic labour market and import cheaper, more pliable foreign workers en masse. The human rights complaint, meanwhile, calls attention to the rotten feature at the core of the program: the tying of workers' permits to a single employer, who can fire and send them back home at any time, for any reason.
Of course, these problems are nothing new. They stem back to the inception of Canada's seasonal farm worker program in the 1960s. Labour and social justice groups have been crying out for an overhaul to the temporary foreign worker program (which has grown to include live-in caregivers and "low-skilled" labourers in nearly every industry) for decades.
But given the reality of a Conservative government bent on delivering labour "flexibility" to employers -- a government that recently tweaked the rules to allow employers to pay foreign labourers wages up to fifteen per cent less than the going rate -- the prospects for imminent reform in the direction of justice look rather slim.
The good news is that labour and social justice organizers needn't sit on their hands waiting for the government to change the laws on foreign workers. There is much that can and is being done today to improve migrant labourers' working conditions, despite the deeply flawed system.
Take, for instance, the work done over the past decade by one union, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Canada, to support and organize foreign temporary workers.
UFCW represents workers in Canada's agriculture, food-processing, retail and service sectors, where foreign workers are most heavily concentrated. The union comes into direct contact with more than 50,000 migrant workers every year. Defending migrant workers' interests has become central to many of it activities.
Worker education and advocacy
By arming foreign workers with information about their legal rights, UFCW is helping to counteract some of the worst abuses of the foreign worker program. Through the Agriculture Workers Alliance, it runs worker support centres in ten communities in British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. Workers of all types -- unionized and non-unionized, Canadian and foreign -- access the centres for free education and advocacy services in multiple languages. Stan Raper, national coordinator of the Agriculture Workers Alliance, reports that more than 35,000 workers contacted the centres for assistance in 2010.
The support centres help injured workers file claims for compensation. They intervene on behalf of workers facing deportation or employer abuses such as withholding of wages (of which they've encountered hundreds of cases). They inform migrants who are parents of their entitlement to parental leave benefits under EI and help file claims for those benefits. They've helped thousands of retired foreign workers apply for Canada Pension Plan benefits.
"Because they're seasonal workers, it's not a lot of money," says Raper, "but twenty-five or fifty bucks a month is a lot more in Mexico or Jamaica than it is here."
In total, the support centres have helped seasonal workers (most of them foreign) collect over $57 million in benefits.
Unionization and collective agreements
Although unionizing foreign temporary workers is challenging, it's not impossible. UFCW Canada has formed over a dozen union locals which count thousands of foreign temporary workers among their ranks. They've secured collective agreements guaranteeing decent, safe working conditions as well as provisions of specific importance to migrant workers, such as:
- grievance resolution procedures that remove the threat of arbitrary deportation
- rules for recalling workers every season based on seniority rather than the whims of the employer
- providing important documents in the workers' native languages
- regular inspection of workers' housing by the union
Several UFCW locals, such as Local 1118 in Alberta and Local 832 in Manitoba, have also negotiated clauses in their collective agreements making it easier for foreign workers to pursue permanent residency. The employers in both cases are committed to nominating every foreign worker they employ for permanent resident status through the provincial nomination programs.
Taking it to the courts
UFCW Canada sometimes takes legal action to defend the rights of foreign temporary workers.
In 2011, after several Mexican workers who'd participated in the seasonal agriculture program were denied re-admission, UFCW Local 1518 filed charges with the B.C. Labour Relations Board against their employers and the Mexican consulate in Vancouver. The union had found what it said was evidence that the two companies involved had colluded with the Mexican government to bar pro-union workers from returning to Canada. The labour board ruled that Mexico has state immunity and is therefore exempt from the complaint. A ruling on the charges against the two employers has yet to be issued.
UFCW is just one union working to defend the rights of migrant labourers in Canada. Others include the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the B.C. and Yukon Territory Building and Construction Trades Council and the Construction and Specialized Workers' Union. The latter successfully sued two companies on behalf of 60 temporary foreign workers who they'd employed to construct a rapid transit line in Vancouver. United Steelworkers has partnered with Migrante Ontario to provide legal, dental, insurance, educational and telecommunications services to migrant live-in caregivers, while also lobbying for changes to the foreign worker program.
Then there are the dozens, perhaps hundreds of grassroots social justice, church and community groups providing support and advocacy to migrant workers. They are too numerous to list here, but a few examples are Justicia for Migrant Workers, the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change and Migrante-Canada.
As the number of indentured foreign workers toiling in fields, factories, hotels and fast food outlets across the country continues to increase, we have much to learn from the examples of these unions and community groups working in solidarity with migrant workers.
Lori Theresa Waller is rabble.ca's labour reporter.
Photo: Tania Liu / flickr