The scandal surrounding the temporary foreign workers program (TFWP) has sparked a fierce debate over who has a right to a job in Canada, pitting foreign and local workers against each other. But the dispute is uncovering deeper issues, such as exploitative employers who use fear and intimidation tactics on workers.
It also suggests the normalizing of a low-wage economy and governments relaxing labour laws to appease corporations’ want for cheap labour. This trend is both troubling for newcomers, local workers and the economy in Canada as a whole. The Live-in Caregiver Program, the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program and the Stream for Lower-skilled Occupations are the programs companies use to import transient workers into Canada.
The West Coast Domestic Workers’ Association (WCDWA) report, Migrant Workers released on May 28, revealed widespread manipulation of employees and threats of deportation in order to persuade employees to keep working. The WCDWA wants to stop the requirement that an employer must be one of the sponsors for a low-skilled worker in order to navigate the path to becoming a permanent resident.
Accusations of human rights violations and abuse by companies and corporations of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP) in Canada have forced the federal government to suspend the program for fast food and hospitality workers.
The B.C. Federation of Labour (BCFED) president Jim Sinclair is pleased to see the increased media attention given to migrant workers, and to the decline in wages and employment standards in B.C. as well as in other provinces across Canada.
“Take this job and shove it” — a song about the bitterness of a man who has worked long and hard with no apparent reward — has resurged as a mantra for labour unions, reminding companies of the fundamental right of a worker to leave their job.
“The program is being abused by employers. Currently, TFWsare indentured to employers, they can’t leave their jobs, we got rid of that at the turn of the century, we shouldn’t bring it back. A fundamental right of Canadians is to leave their job if it’s not working,” said Sinclair in a phone interview.
A TFW’s stay in Canada is tied to their employer, and they do not have the same avenues a Canadian worker would have to report bad working conditions or unfair pay.
Restaurants Canada, the largest restaurant association in Canada, is calling for an end to the moratorium because of a labour shortage that is supposedly at crisis level. They launched an online petition called ‘Protecting Canadian Jobs’ that has gathered 3,000 signatures from business owners and employees. Sinclair doesn’t buy that argument.
“If you have to sustain your business with indentured labour it’s not a model we should support,” he said.
“If you have to sustain your business with indentured labour it’s not a model we should support.”
In late April, when the TFW’s scandal broke, so did a provocative study by Simon Fraser University professor Dr. Dominique Gross, published by the C.D. Howe Institute.
The study questions the need to bring in TFW’s to Canada. The report states that “Between 2002 and 2013, Canada relaxed the hiring conditions of TFW’s because of a reported labour shortage in some occupations, especially in western Canada.” By 2012, the number of employed TFW’s had tripled but the unemployment rate stayed the same at 7.2 per cent. Gross stated in the study that “I find that changes to the TFWP that eased hiring conditions accelerated the rise in unemployment rates in Alberta and British Columbia.”
President of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) Ken Georgetti isn’t surprised by the recent revelations that three McDonald’s franchises in Victoria and a pizza restaurant in Weyburn, Saskatoon are at the centre of program abuse allegations involving Canadian employees alleging foreign workers were given priority work status. Relaxed regulations also allowed employers to bring in workers for 15 per cent less than the legal minimum wage. According to an April 24 Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) press release, “McDonald’s restaurants have imported at least 3,400 workers under the TFWP at a time when Statistics Canada reports that in January 2014 there were 6.7unemployed Canadian workers for each job vacancy. Although this looks like a foreign versus domestic worker dispute, the TFWP effects both newcomers and local workers and the economy as a whole.”
Foreign v. local
In a May 2014 press release, CLC president Georgetti stated that, “The TFWP is abused by unscrupulous employers and the federal government promises to investigate, but nothing really changes. In the last decade the number of temporary work permits granted to employers has tripled. The current federal government has provided the tools for employers to import 500,000 migrant workers and all of this at a time of continuing high unemployment.”
Economist and researcher for Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives B.C. chapter, Iglika Ivanova, wrote a report called B.C. Jobs Reality Check exposing the lack of policy by the B.C. government to address high unemployment in the province since the global economic crash in 2008. She said that bringing in TFW’s only makes sense for positions that require very specialized skills not available locally, and only on a temporary basis. But it’s currently being used as a source of cheap labour and critics are demanding that this stop.
“Of the new jobs created since the recession, 29 per cent have been filled by temporary foreign workers, and there has been a rise in TFW in more remote areas, like Fernie, where Tim Hortons is under investigation for abuse of the program,” Ivanova said by phone.
“Of the new jobs created since the recession, 29 per cent have been filled by temporary foreign workers, and there has been a rise in TFW in more remote areas, like Fernie …”
BCFED president Sinclair reiterated the finding by CCPA, “I would like to see the low-wage category shut down, nothing temporary there. There is no skills shortage in that sector [fast food] so shut it down.Go back to what it was before 2002, highly skilled workers provided the company has a training program to pass those skills on.There are a million people unemployed in Canada, we are not against immigration, we want to see family reunification, and a path to permanent residency,” said Sinclair.
He also wants the program to follow Manitoba’s model by creating aTFW registry so there can be better oversight and enforcement of the rules. Manitoba also provides health insurance to TFW’s. The current program, said Ivanova, makes it so easy now for employers to say, “Oh, we can’t find local workers we need TFW’s.”
“In a normal demand and supply situation, if they can’t fill a job the wage needs to rise. But If you can bring an unlimited supply of TFW’s who are being paid less, there is no incentive to raise the wage,” said Ivanova. British Columbia’s current minimum wage is $10.25 an hour. A person working one year full time would be making well below the poverty line in Vancouver. Canada’s federal government recently introduced changes to the temporary foreign worker program allowing the federal government to suspend the ability for employers found to be non-compliant with program requirements to hire TFW’s. However, critics want the underlying issues addressed, i.e., getting used to a low-wage economy and the erosion of secure long-term jobs.
“Corporations are in a global race to the bottom,” said Sinclair.
Georgetti adds in the May 2014 press release that “The Canadian labour movement wants to see a return to a robust federal immigration regime that increases annual immigration numbers. If we need workers, then we should offer them a path to citizenship. But in the interim, we want a full, open and transparent review of the TFWP.”
Ivanova said via email that the CCAP report on the B.C. job market cites a lack of skills training (in B.C.).
“The unemployed population lacks the skills needed for the jobs being created. This speaks to significant problems with our skills training system in the province. Second, there has been a surge in temporary foreign workers in relatively unskilled jobs. What’s really at play is employers who don’t want to pay more than the minimum wage, or who don’t want to provide even basic training to their workers, taking advantage of the loose rules around the temporary foreign worker.”