The Temporary Foreign Worker Program of the Canadian government is coming under increasing scrutiny and criticism as the number of employers tapping into it increases and as reports of abuse and exploitation rise accordingly.
The program was the subject of an evening panel discussion in Vancouver on November 27 at this week’s biannual convention of the B.C. Federation of Labour. Some 100 delegates attended the forum.
Panel presentations were led off by Lee Loftus, President of the B.C. Building Trades Council. His union is one of two that have launched a legal challenge to an application by the Chinese-owned HD Mining company to bring hundreds of Chinese workers to build and operate a coal mine in the Tumbler Ridge region in the northeast of the province. According to Luftus, four to six additional such applications by mining companies have been made or are in the works.
The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) obliges an applicant company to demonstrate that it cannot find the workers it needs within the existing labour market in Canada. It must also spell out a plan for how it will establish a permanent workforce. Loftus said that enforcement of these provisions are lacking. The unions in the mining industry, whose members would traditionally be the ones hired to build such a project as HD’s, only learned the company’s plans one month ago.
The company says it solicited and received 300 applicants from Canadian residents. Loftus reported that not a single one was accepted.
Loftus said that unions support the right of foreign workers to immigrate to Canada. But they want them to enjoy equal rights to Canadian-resident workers. “Our motto,” he said, “is ‘Good enough to work, good enough to live [in Canada].'”
He gave the example of tunnel drilling labourers and specialists from abroad hired to work on the rapid transit line built in Vancouver during the 2000s. When the labourers’ union discovered that they were working for an hourly equivalent of $3.71, it successfully organized them and won big immediate improvements to their wages and work conditions. It won a court decision for salary compensation against the contractors SELI and SNC Lavalin, though that decision is still under appeal and compensation has not been paid.
Eugene Kung of the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Center told the audience that Chinese-Canadians such as himself are following closely the controversy over the TFWP. He explained that the program denies fundamental rights to workers and leaves them vulnerable to super-exploitation.
Recent changes to the program will speed up the process through which companies can apply for temporary workers and they will be allowed to pay 15 per cent less that a benchmark wage rate determined for a given region and industry.
Kung explained that his group has been assisting four temporary workers from Mexico whose story of employer abuse came into the news several weeks ago. They were hired to work for a Tim Horton’s coffee franchise in northern B.C.
Kung talked about the legal challenge to HD Mining’s plans. Racist immigration policies are a dark chapter in Canadian history, he said. “My grandfather paid the head tax, so we know all about this past.”* He said he worries that the TFWP will stir up racism against Chinese-Canadians.
“We can do better than the past,” he said, “and thankfully we are. I am very encouraged to see that the B.C. Federation of Labour is doing just that, by focusing this issue on protection of workers rights.” He said that concerned people must fight against the exclusion and isolation of workers, and they explain the harsh economic conditions in the world economy that are compelling so many people to seek to leave their homelands.
Lucy Luna of the UFCW described the legal labyrinth and no-man’s-land in which the TFWP increasingly operates. She gave the recent example of two Mexican workers who were dissatisfied with the agricultural jobs that they were hired to perform in BC. They decided to return to Mexico rather than continue to work under conditions of abuse.
Their employer refused to assist their return home. The TFWP requires employers to pay the transport to and from the home country of workers, but in this case, the employer refused to do so because it said the workers had not completed their contract.
The union and the workers went to various federal and provincial government agencies and were told, “Not our jurisdiction.” They went to police and were told that because no law was broken, nothing could be done. It was only when their story hit the news and the Mexican Consulate in Vancouver became involved that air tickets were quickly purchased and the workers were able to return home.
“What’s wrong with the TFWP is that it is temporary and it leaves workers extremely vulnerable. These workers should have the opportunity to become permanent residents,” Luna said.
She reminded the audience that legislation does not permit temporary farmworkers to become permanent residents of Canada. She also explained that the UFCW has organized the large meatpacking factories in western Canada where a large part of the workforce is nonetheless. “They should be allowed to stay in Canada,” she said.
During the discussion period, audience members contributed examples and experiences they have faced in seeking to defend workers being exploited under the TFWP. Joey Hartman, President of the Vancouver and District Labour Council, asked the views of panelists about commentaries, including in left-wing press, suggesting that the trade union challenge to the TFWP is harkening back to the racist past many decades ago when unions in the province campaigned against Chinese workers and immigration.
Loftus said he finds such reports “distasteful and offensive.”
“What we are trying to do is to make sure that history does not repeat itself. We are fighting so that all workers have equal rights. The TFWP program is broken and must be fixed.”
Eugene Kung said it is important to study the past so that it is not repeated. He warned the audience to beware of reports in corporate media that would blame temporary workers for the difficult economic conditions facing Canadian workers.
In her remarks to the forum, chairperson Lorene Oikawa of the BCGEU said the B.C. Federation of Labour wants a moratorium on the TFWP program until blatant abuses and discrimination are ended.
The Temporary Foreign Worker Program dates back to 1973. It allows a maximum of two years of residence. It was originally aimed at bringing professionals and skilled workers to Canada. Beginning in 2007, Canada began to receive more temporary foreign workers than immigrants seeking permanent residence. Today, there are an estimated 300,000 workers in Canada under the program (a 33 per cent rise since 2007), including 70,000 in BC.
The two flagship programs of temporary workers in Canada are the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program and the Live-in Caregiver Program (LICP). The numbers of workers coming to Canada on these programs is now surpassed by the TFWP.
Roger Annis is a retired aerospace worker and IAM member.