On April 1, 2015, an estimated 70,000 temporary foreign workers whose contracts are expiring will either voluntarily leave Canada, be given deportation orders, or will continue living here without legal documents. Based on the number of temporary foreign workers seeking assistance from settlement services agencies and migrant organizations, 16,000 temporary foreign workers in Alberta will lose status in Alberta, which migrant advocates stress is a conservative estimate.
Moreover, while then Employment Minister Jason Kenney granted one-year visa extensions to 1,000 temporary foreign workers whose work permits expire in April, but who have immigration applications pending with the Alberta Immigration Provincial Nominee Program (AINP), many who will lose status were not given extensions.
In response, migrant advocacy groups in Alberta have become active. Of note is the Temporary Foreign Workers Support Coalition, which consists of members from Migrante-Alberta, UNIFOR, the Kabisig Society of Fort Saskatchewan, Industrial Workers of the World, interested Canadian citizens, and temporary foreign workers. Over the past few months, the Coalition has held rights-awareness workshops across Alberta with temporary foreign workers to inform them of upcoming policy changes and their options.
Led by immigration lawyers and policy experts, these workshops also provided a historical overview of Canada’s immigration program that show the connections between the TFWP, Komagata Maru, and the Chinese Exclusion Act.
The Coalition has also convened film screenings and social events bringing temporary foreign workers together with Canadian workers to discuss the issues they have in common and to strategize on ways to work together, lobbied municipal, provincial, and federal politicians and bureaucrats, and, most importantly, launched 1-888-366-0194, which temporary foreign workers can call for support.
Marco Luciano of Migrante-Alberta indicates that the hotline has been especially busy for the last few weeks, with temporary foreign workers inquiring about their legal options. That a few callers have also inquired about the location of the closest food banks in their area indicates the precariousness of temporary foreign workers’ situations.
The Coalition holds seminars that are open to the Canadian public on immigration issues. On March 20 and 21, the Coalition held a conference on “Migration and the Global Trade of People” at the University of Alberta.
Featuring academics and advocates who addressed the global trade in people and policy implications in migrant-sending and migrant-receiving states, the conference also featured Vicky Venancio, who spoke about her experiences under the TFWP and how the Canadian government has issued her deportation orders after she was run over by a car on her way to work and was left quadriplegic. Although Venancio sought support for the “Justice for Vicky” campaign, which endeavours to grant Venancio permanent residency on compassionate and humanitarian grounds, she emphasized that her situation is similar to other temporary foreign workers and that pathways to permanent immigration should be provided.
The conference also featured workshops discussing the structural roots of migration and possible alternatives to labour migration regimes, the situations of migrant families who have to contend with family separation and family reunification, and ways for migrant and labour movements to work together to support temporary foreign workers.
A key point of discussion during the latter was the issue of getting Canadians, specifically union members, on board with the campaign for temporary foreign workers. Danilo De Leon, a current temporary foreign worker, stressed that the issues facing temporary foreign workers was an immigration issue and a labour issue. For him, it was important for Canadian workers and temporary foreign workers that both groups face similar employment vulnerabilities. Government policies and abusive employers were the problem.
Debunking xenophobic perceptions against temporary foreign workers and getting Canadian allies are reasons for why members of the Coalition decided to take part.
“It is a human issue. Sharing our land, our resources and services with others should be central to what being human is about, instead of a ‘mine’ mentality. It is about not accepting that some jobs we don’t want to do should be done by people not worthy of belonging to our community permanently,” said Whitney Haynes when asked why she became active in supporting temporary foreign workers.
Coalition member Poushali Mitra agreed, adding that, “since 2006 the Canadian government has imposed restrictions on settlement and residency rights of foreign workers by ushering in a spate of immigration policy changes, the most devastating one being the introduction of a four year cap rule leading to April 1st mass deportation. Thousands of workers have contributed to Canada’s social and economic capital. Deporting them is against settlement and human rights.”
With April 1 looming, the Coalition, along with other migrant groups across Canada, plan to hold demonstrations to show that temporary foreign workers who are good enough to work should also be good enough to stay.
Ethel Tungohan is a community activist and a Grant Notley postdoctoral fellow at the University of Alberta.