Federal government quietly lifts cap on temporary foreign workers in seasonal industries

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Tinkering with the number of temporary foreign workers admitted into Canada for seasonal labour fails to fix underlying problems around unsustainable business practises, workers' groups in Atlantic Canada warn.

Unifor, the New Brunswick Federation of Labour and the Fish and the Food and Allied Workers' Union in Newfoundland and Labrador raised concerns about the program after news emerged the federal government removed the hiring cap for temporary foreign workers in seasonal industries for the year.

The exemption, issued in February without any formal notice, is reportedly in response to lobbying from Atlantic seafood processors.

Rules implemented under the Conservatives limited the number of temporary foreign workers an employer could hire to 20 per cent of its workforce. This is due to reduce to 10 per cent in July.

According to The Globe and Mail, the February exemption enables employers in seasonal industries to bring in an unlimited number of temporary foreign workers for 2016, as long as the workers' employment period is less than 180 days.

Lana Payne, Atlantic regional director for Unifor, urged the government to consider how the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) was impacting the labour force and wider economy.

"When you give employers a cheap path to being able to access cheap labour that then prevents them from perhaps modernizing the industry," she said.

It also creates a dependence on cheap labour, and makes it difficult for employers willing to pay fair wages to remain competitive.

In addition to this, it can "open the floodgates" for other low-wage industries like hospitality and retail to pursue similar exemptions, Payne said.

According to a 2014 government report, 12,162 employers hired employees through the TFWP in 2013. At least one in five of these employers had a workforce made up of more than 30 per cent of temporary foreign workers. Businesses that hired 50 per cent or more of its workers through the program accounted for 9.2 per cent of employers using the program that year.

"These numbers clearly show that the TFWP is no longer being used as it was intended to be used -- as a last and limited resort to allow employers to bring foreign workers to Canada on a temporary basis to fill jobs for which Canadians are not available," the report stated.

Patrick Colford, president of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour, said a strategy that allowed for a pathway to immigration for temporary workers would be more beneficial to seasonal industries and its workers -- both local and foreign.

"The workers that are brought in to do this program are some of the lowest paid and most vulnerable in Canada."

While measures increasing oversight of the program had been implemented, "until these workers are given access to permanent residency and the legal means to escape those abuses by employers, no amount of compliance efforts is enough," Colford said.

Maintaining the program in its current form also provided employers with a disincentive to improve overall working conditions and pay as it enabled continual access to "a cheap labour pool in the form of temporary foreign workers."

Keith Sullivan, president of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers' Union in Newfoundland and Labrador, agreed with Payne and Colford, and said while the program had been rarely used in his province, its ongoing existence highlighted wider issues around seasonal work.

"It's a concern for workers because it has been used as a way to depress wages and get access to cheaper labour. We really should be looking at ways to make those jobs better and make them more attractive for people," he said.

"Seafood is becoming relatively expensive and companies are doing well. That is not necessarily reflected in wages of people working in the plants."

The working conditions and safety practices in those plants also needed to improve, Sullivan said.

A government review of the temporary foreign workers program is due to take place later this year.

In 2013, 83,740 people entered Canada through the program, according to figures from the Employment and Social Development department.


Teuila Fuatai is a recent transplant to Canada from Auckland, New Zealand. She settled in Toronto in September following a five-month travel stint around the United States. In New Zealand, she worked as a general news reporter for the New Zealand Herald and APNZ News Service for four years after studying accounting, communication and politics at the University of Otago. As a student, she had her own radio show on the local university station and wrote for the student magazine. She is rabble's labour beat reporter this year.

Photo: flickr/ David Robert Bliwas

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