Behind Canada’s labour force are migrant workers filling in job gaps to support the country’s economic growth. With an ageing workforce, labour shortages are on the rise—in late 2021, job vacancies were 80 per cent higher than pre-pandemic levels. The Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) Program is just one of Canada’s solutions to a growing labour gap—the program stipulates that if businesses or employers are unable to find any Canadian workers to fill a job position, they can hire temporary foreign workers.
“Your rights are protected,” reads the Government of Canada’s site outlining the TFW program. “If you are a temporary foreign worker, you have the same rights and protections as Canadians and permanent residents.”
But the TFW program has left many migrant workers vulnerable to employer abuse. Often, TFWs are unaware of their workers’ rights—sometimes due to a language barrier or employers not providing this information to TFWs. According to the Government of Canada, the responsibility lies on the employer to provide TFWs with information on their workers’ rights and a copy of their employment agreement before their first day.
Ronald Vehse, a 56-year-old man from Germany, moved to Canada through the TFW Program. He was left with little guidance from the government’s TFW program and his employer failed to inform Vehse about his rights—sometimes even misleading him. Vehse spent years navigating the complexities of Canada’s immigration system. As he worked towards permanent residency, he encountered the inadequacies of the TFW program, experiencing everything from financial to psychological abuse.
Pathway to Citizenship
With aspirations of settling in Canada, Vehse always envisioned himself living a quiet life—he simply wanted to be surrounded by nature and his beloved animals.
Growing up in Germany, he was always drawn to books and movies based in North America, and after a visit to Canada, he knew instantly that this was where he belonged.
“I never ever had this feeling in Germany, but in Canada, I had this feeling—I felt at home,” said Vehse in an interview with rabble.ca
In 2012, he decided to pursue his dreams of moving to Canada. Working three jobs at once, he started saving and sold everything he owned in Germany to afford transporting all of his animals including three horses and his cat. For Vehse, moving with his animals was non-negotiable—they were like family to him. After three months of saving, a job opportunity came along so Vehse made plans to transport his horses and moved to Canada.
With goals of obtaining permanent residency, Vehse came to Canada in September 2012 through the TFW program. While the program allows Canadian employers to fill a labour gap, it can also open pathways for TFWs to get permanent residency. Employers have the option to support a TFWs permanent residency visa application by making a job offer under the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada’s (IRCC) Express Entry system.
But once Vehse arrived, he was left at the mercy of a flawed immigration system with little support.
Living through the Temporary Foreign Worker program
Nestled in Northern Alberta is the small town of Spirit River, where Vehse settled and started his path towards permanent residency—for the next eight and a half years, he worked under the temporary foreign worker.
As a skilled trades worker with experience as a carpenter, locksmith, mechanic and estimator, Vehse took part in a Canada-Alberta Temporary Foreign Worker pilot project for occupation-specific employment in the trades industry. Vehse spent the first couple months working as an estimator with a small custom fencing company.
But when the company was unable to provide work, Vehse was then offered a job from his landlord, Darren McCarty. K&M Building Contractors is a family business run by the McCarty family. The company was founded by Darren’s father, Roy McCarty, back in 1966.
His relationship with the McCartys started off amicably—he was helpful and kind at the beginning, providing Vehse with employment and housing that also accommodated his horses.
However, as the years passed, Vehse started noticing something strange on his payroll. He was working nearly ten-to-12 hours a day, yet the overtime was not reflected on his paycheque. Once Vehse confronted his employer about the pay discrepancy, Darren stated that he did not qualify for overtime.
“He said, ‘well, this costs more money. I cannot give you overtime because you were working in the morning for company A. Then you go to lunch and then after lunch you work for company B. Why should I pay overtime?’” said Vehse.
Collectively, the McCarty family owns three separate companies—McCarty Holdings, McCarty Farms and K&M Buildings. Unknown to Vehse, Darren was splitting his daily work hours between both McCarty Farms and K&M Buildings. Vehse’s hours were recorded as two part-time shifts, working for K&M in the morning and then McCarty Farms in the afternoon—he did not qualify for overtime from K&M’s perspective.
Later, he suspected that the company was also deducting more than agreed upon for his health benefits.
Over the course of his employment, he calculated a loss of around $106,000 from unpaid overtime, holiday pay and incorrect deductions. From the beginning, Vehse feels he was being cheated out of his wages.
As a TFW with a closed work permit, Vehse is tied to working under one employer for a specific position. His closed work permit prevented him from seeking new employment.
Despite what he alleges was unfair treatment, he remained silent for fear of losing his job, his living accommodations and his chances at permanent residency.
Then in early January 2021, Vehse alleges that was sent to an unsafe jobsite where the material they were using to renovate a house was covered in black mold. Vehse refused to work.
Vehse finally had enough.
The employment standards complaint and the aftermath
With the help of an immigration consultant, Vehse submitted an employment standards complaint. He proactively applied for a Vulnerable Worker’s Open Permit (VWOWP), suspecting that his complaint would result in retaliation from his employer.
The complaint resulted in a settlement of $17,680.80 for unpaid hourly wages and holiday pay, which only accounted for only six months of unpaid wages from October 2020 to March 2021 and missing holiday pay from 2014 to 2021. Employment Standards Complaints only look back at the last six months from the date of the complaint.
But Vehse’s troubles did not end there. As soon as McCarty and K&M Buildings were found non-compliant under Alberta Employment Standards Code, Vehse was fired. The termination notice from K&M Buildings did not indicate the reason for his termination.
Nearly two months later, Vehse was forced out of his accommodations. In June 2021, McCarty issued a notice of rent increase and to vacate the premises. The monthly payment would increase from $900 to $1,700 on September 5, 2021. The notice also ordered Vehse to vacate the premises that same day. Ten days later, McCarty issued a second notice to vacate the premises after the first notice failed to comply with Alberta’s Residential Tenancy Act.
“I must leave the house and there were lots of expenses for me too. I must use my savings, money to find some new [housing],” said Vehse. “But when you’re looking for a new property, the landlord wants to know, did you work three months and also wants a statement from the landlord before.”
According to Vehse, McCarty has also interfered in his search for employment and housing. Spirit River, Alta. is a small town with a population of 847 and the word about Vehse and McCarty’s disputes spread quickly.
Vehse became a pariah in his community. People in town were reluctant to hire him or sign him on as a tenant. He believed this was all in retaliation for filing an employment standards complaint against K&M Buildings.
“For me personally, it is not ending. Not the stress, not the sinking [feeling], the sometimes sleepless night and there’s also the frustration,” said Vehse. “It is basically a nightmare that is never ever ending.”
Seeking accountability and reparations
Back in September 2022, Vehse filed a lawsuit against McCarty and K&M seeking total damages of $300,000 for his wrongful termination, aggravated damages and a breach in his employment contract.
Scott Richardson, lawyer from Hladun and Company, represents Vehse’s case. According to Richardson, K&M Buildings failed to comply with the Alberta Employment Standards Code and was in breach of his contract leading to K&M’s unjust enrichment. While working on Vehse’s case, Richardson also noted that there are clear disadvantages for TFWs.
“It’s not a simple issue of just being able to raise complaints about their working conditions because there’s always that threat of essentially being removed from Canada if there’s a negative relationship with their employers. So, the employer has a lot of power over a TFW. There’s a huge power differential there,” said Richardson. “And again, you’ve got those compounding factors of language barriers, cultural differences and TFWs being alone and not having a community to rely on.”
Considering all those different obstacles a TFW faces, navigating the complexities of Canada’s statutes and regulations around labour or immigration law is an uphill battle.
In Vehse’s case, he needed to navigate the complexities of multiple government agencies including Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, Employment and Social Development Canada, Alberta Employment Standards, Alberta’s Residential Tenancy Dispute Services and Canada Revenue Agency. From one agency to another, Vehse was left to figure out the intricacies of each system on his own with little guidance.
“You see so much of that reflected in Vehse’s case—you know, he’s living through those failures of the system, failures of his employer,” said Richardson.
“The terrible thing is that Ron’s case isn’t unique by any means. For every Ron that can navigate the system, get help from a lawyer or an immigration consultant and go through the procedures designed to safeguard TFWs, there’s dozens of people that don’t even get that opportunity or don’t even know that any of that is available,” said Richardson.
A system rife with abuse
Vehse is just one of many cases of TFW abuse. With the apparent power imbalance between employers and TFWs, most are also reluctant to speak up for fear of jeopardizing their status.
Migrante Canada, a non-profit organization that provides resources for migrants and advocates for their rights, is far too familiar with these cases. Jay Zapata, secretary-general of Migrante Alberta, said that TFWs often are unaware of their labour rights or even how to exercise them.
“In terms of immigration and labour disputes, it’s a burden on the workers because they have to make a complaint. And again, there’s a due process to that before it’ll go to a lawsuit. It’s very tedious to file a lawsuit,” said Zapata.
Pursuing legal action against former employers is rare for TFWs, added Zapata. The financial barrier is steep for migrant workers and at times they are already struggling to support themselves—let alone pursuing legal action.
“The serious lack of access to justice for these people too—it’s not a simple matter of just hiring a lawyer to look at their file when they could be living paycheck to paycheck [or] they’re getting underpaid by their employer. They don’t have these deep pockets to go out and obtain legal advice,’ said Richardson.
Danilo De Leon, national chair of Migrante Canada and former TFW himself, has known these financial hardships and has even had to pursue his own lawsuit against his deportation.
“Here’s the thing—when migrants come here to work, they have to make sure financially they can help themselves here. Aside from that, sometimes they send money back home for their family to ensure they have financial support,” said De Leon.
“So, it turns out that migrant workers are not making any money. They can even end up in the negative sometimes because of rent, food, phone bill, the transportation cost,” he added.
With funding raised by Migrante, De Leon was able to get access to legal aid. However, he recognized that this is a service needed for TFWs and migrant workers across Canada. Through their work, Migrante does as much as they can to connect migrant workers with access to immigration consultants and legal advice.
But there is risk of retaliation when filing a complaint or a lawsuit. The process is also very time consuming and can take a toll on a person’s mental health.
“There are no guarantees that anything will come of their complaints. And again, there’s that threat of retaliation if a complaint is made and the employer becomes aware of it. So, there’s all these different pressures put on TFWs and it makes sense that the whole program is rife with abuse,” said Richardson.
Looking for accountability
After dealing with Canada’s faulty immigration system, Vehse finally obtained his permanent residency in 2022. Today, he currently resides in Alberta on a 15-acre farm accompanied by his animals—his horses, his cat and his dog.
Although Vehse said that he has found some respite, he still thinks about his time as a TFW and is still coming to terms with his experience.
“It’s rough. It’s a little difficult. I find for myself when I’m reading job offers or speak with employers, I’m very sensitive,” said Vehse.
In the end, the employee standards complaint that Vehse filed in April 2021, resulted in a slap on the wrist. K&M Buildings was found non-compliant for one provision under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations.
The company was fined $1,000 and placed on a non-compliant employer list on the Government of Canada’s website. Although they were found non-compliant, K&M is still eligible to participate in the TFW program. rabble reached out to K&M Building Contractors for an interview, but did not receive a response.
“So, I mean for what? The $1,000 penalty and a red flag when he can at the same time apply for [a] new foreign worker. It does not make any sense,” said Vehse.
To date, there are 688 businesses identified on the Government of Canada’s non-compliant employer list. The list only goes as far back as June 2016.
… Can I ask you a question?
Do you ever feel that, with everything that’s going on around the world and a million breaking news stories in your face, on your phone, every day, it’s hard to stay on top of the news that actually matters to you?
That’s why I believe rabble.ca is so important; our national writing team cuts through the corporate news releases, the misinformation and the buzzy, fear-mongering clickbait to share the heart of the stories that most affect Canadians —all through a progressive lens, always corporate free and never behind a paywall.
We believe exceptional, independent media should be accessible to all. But in order to keep this mandate going, we’ll need your help.
Support rabble.ca today and keep progressive journalism free for everyone. Every little bit counts! Whether it be a one-time donation or a small monthly contribution, you’ll be securing rabble’s place in Canadian media for years to come.
Become a rabble rouser — donate to rabble.ca today.