Photo: Vincenzo Pietropaolo

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Once again, Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program has been in the national news. This time, members of the Canadian labour movement questioned the integrity of the program when it was exposed that a mining company had been approved to bring in 200 of potentially 2,000 coal miners from China to work at a site in northern British Columbia. Labour brokers based in China, recruiting for mining operations such as this one, were charging up to $16,000 dollars from interested applicants and, on their job postings flyers, had listed being able to speak Mandarin. In addition, the labour brokers cited wages significantly lower than the base rate wage for miners in B.C. 

The Canadian Labour Congress questioned the government’s process to grant approval for this operation. Among the many serious concerns raised was the fact that Statistics Canada data, for nearly five months, has shown that tens of thousands of workers skilled in mining are available in the country. How was it possible for a company to claim that Canadian workers were not available?

CBC National interviewed Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney on December 11 about the case, and he said, “It is a requirement of the program to pay at or above the prevailing regional wage rate of any particular occupation and this notion that employers are paying substantial less than what Canadians would make is simply totally factual untrue.”

In fact, what Kenney said was untrue. He has conveniently forgotten that his government significantly changed the wage rules for employers hiring high-skilled migrant workers. On April 25, 2012, after direct consultations with a select group of employers, Diane Finley, Minister of Human Resources Skills Development Canada, announced a new “Accelerated Labour Market Opinion” to provide employers with “greater flexibility.” “Wages,” she said, “that are up to 15 per cent below the average wage for an occupation in a specific region will now be accepted.”

Later in May, her department issued a backgrounder clarifying that employers would also be able to pay low-skilled migrant workers five per cent less than prevailing wage rates, and that the Accelerated Labour Market Opinion process “may gradually be expanded to include risk-based processing for all occupations and components of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.” Simply put, this means the Conservative government plans to implement a pay-less wage structure across all streams of the program. Given that migrant workers are now present in every sector of the economy, this change will create the means to lower wages for all workers. 

Minister Kenney’s public assurance that the Temporary Foreign Worker Program requires employers to pay at or above the prevailing wage rate of any occupation does not hold water.

Kenney often responds to critiques of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program by insulting the critics. His recent national media appearance was no different, with him saying, “There are a lot of myths that have been created by big labour unions about the program that are simply unfactual.”

Following is a short list of observations and findings about the program from sources other than so-called big labour unions:

In 2009, the Auditor General reviewed the TFWP and found, “there has been no follow up by either Citizenship and Immigration Canada or Human Resources Skills Development Canada to verify that employers are complying with the terms and conditions under which the Labour Market Opinion (LMO) was approved, such as wages to be paid and accommodations to be provided.”

In March 2010, Alberta’s Ministry of Employment and Immigration found that 74 per cent of over 400 workplaces employing migrant workers had violated the employment standards Act regarding pay rates and record-keeping. In the summer of 2010, Alberta’s Employment and Immigration Minister Thomas Lukaszuk concluded that the Temporary Foreign Worker Program was no longer working well for the province, saying, “It’s a temporary solution to a permanent problem. Why not consider some permanency for this workforce? I always joke [that] the only group that really benefits from the current TFWP is Air Canada, because they are flying people in and out.”

In the lead-up to the 2010 winter Olympics in British Colombia, SNC Lavelin and an Italian firm, SELI, partnered to complete a $2 billion subway tunnel construction project, connecting Vancouver’s International airport to downtown. The partnership hired workers from Costa Rica, Ecuador, Colombia, Spain, Portugal and Italy to operate the tunnel-boring machinery. These specialized migrant construction workers worked 65-70 hours a week and were paid $1,000 USD a month (less than $5 an hour) and were provided motel accommodation and meal tickets. Meanwhile, workers from Europe, doing the same job, were paid $6,500 USD a month and were provided luxury condominium accommodations and a meal allowance.

In 2008, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal heard complaints from the workers and, in a 177-page ruling, found that these workers faced discriminatory and adverse treatment compared to their European counterparts on the job, in terms of salary, accommodation, meals and expenses. The case was brought to Minister Jason Kenney’s attention after he publicly misrepresented the facts of the case, erroneously stating, “…these workers were being compensated at the same level as Canadian workers…” The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal further awarded the workers over $2 million in damages. SELI and SNC immediately filed an appeal.

In 2007 in Alberta, two temporary workers from China were killed on the job when a tank they were working on collapsed. Four other temporary labourers were injured. After nearly two years and just three days shy of the investigation deadline, 53 distinct charges were laid against the employer, including several counts of failing to ensure the health and safety of the workers. During the investigation, Alberta Employment and Immigration also determined that 132 Chinese temporary foreign workers were not paid from April to July 2007.

The Quebec Human Rights Tribunal heard the case of 100-plus migrant farm and day workers who annually worked on Eugene Guinois Jr.’s commercial vegetable farm southwest of Montreal. Guinois Jr.’s operation is one of Canada’s largest such farms and has maintained a “blacks-only” cafeteria that lacked heat, running water, proper toilets, refrigeration, and many other amenities since 1998. Astonishingly, it was not until 2005 that this racist practice was challenged, with the migrant and day-labourers filing a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal. 

According to their testimony, the black workers were regularly verbally and physically abused, and were the targets of graffiti reading “here are our monkeys” and “blacks are pigs.” Company supervisors admitted the facilities for black workers were sub-par.

In her defence testimony in front of Judge Pauz, Jocelyne Guinois, the owner’s daughter, said the cafeteria didn’t have a sink, soap, or even running water, but had several hoses outside that the workers could use. She also said the extra cafeteria was constructed specifically for these workers, partly because “white workers complained that their food smelled bad.”

The judge who presided over the Guinois human rights case was “stunned, even scandalized” by the racism, neglect, and segregation that took place for so long at the 1,300-acre farm. That this practice persisted for so long speaks to the lack of safeguards for migrant workers.

Increasingly, provincial governments have recognized that the Temporary Foreign Worker Program brings consequences to their doorstep. The Saskatchewan provincial government reviewed migrant workers who were seeking residency status under the province’s Immigrant Nominee program. They found migrant workers vulnerable to mistreatment. Examples of mistreatment included the following:

-Recruiters and immigration consultants misrepresenting jobs or immigration program requirements, or withholding information from foreign workers;
-Migrant workers paying fees to be recruited, and;
-Employers not paying wages agreed to in immigration applications, recovering recruitment costs, and forcing workers to use a specific immigration consultants services.

As part of an effort to develop legislation to regulate and license labour brokers and immigration consultants, the Saskatchewan provincial government specifically noted that of 335 cases reviewed, 30 per cent were not covered by any protective existing legislation.

There is no shortage of examples, from a variety of sources other than “big unions,” that put into question the integrity of the Conservatives ramped-up Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

In addition to this short list of egregious flaws with the program, the Canadian Labour Congress and its affiliates, alongside faith groups, academics, immigrant and settlement sector services, and many other community-based organizations, have documented hundreds of other examples of disingenuous employers and labour brokers exploiting migrant workers and their families.

The problems are rampant and not hard to find. So why is Minister Jason Kenney so willfully blind to the problems inherent in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, and should such a person remain tasked with such an important file?


Karl Flecker is the national director of the Human Rights/Anti-Racism Department of the Canadian Labour Congress.

Photo: Vincenzo Pietropaolo

This article was originally published in Our Times and is reprinted here with permission.