Backgrounder on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program
- For the first time in its history, in 2007 and 2008 Canada welcomed more temporary than permanent residents.
- Between 2005 and 2008 there was a 5.7% decline in permanent residents (from 262,241 in 2005 to 247,202 in 2008) and a 37.6% increase in temporary entrants (190,724 students and temporary workers entered Canada in 2005, and 272,520 entered in 2008).
- The number of temporary foreign workers entering Canada has gone up 71.2% between 2004 and 2008 (from 112,719 in 2004 to 193,061 in 2008).
- Temporary residents do not have access to the same supports and services as permanent residents.
- Most of the growth in the temporary worker program is the result of the Low Skill Pilot Project. This pilot allows for the expedited entry of temporary workers with little education or skills who are dependent on their recruiters and employers, are ineligible for services and therefore vulnerable to exploitation.
- Low-skilled temporary workers cannot apply for permanent residence through the federal immigration system.
- Experience in other countries has demonstrated that similar "temporary guest worker" programs have resulted in the creation of an undocumented underclass and its accompanying difficulties.
Conservatives fast-track workers into Canada by relaxing Temporary Foreign Worker regulations
In April, the Harper Conservatives make sweeping changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program by introducing an Accelerated Labour Market Opinion (ALMO) stream for higher skilled foreign workers.
Diane Finley, Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development, made the announcement while touring Advance Engineered Products Ltd.’s manufacturing facility in Nisku, Alberta. The move was defended by Conservative MPs as eliminating "unnecessary red tape."
But the review leading to the new TFWP rules was conducted behind closed doors, with no public input. Only employers were invited to participate, despite labour and other advocacy groups asking to take part in the process. Their requests to make submissions were also refused.
The Alberta Federation of Labour denounced the new ALMO stream as a "monster" and "clearly designed to drive down wages," with new minimum standards, such as a 10 business-day wait period and the ability of employers paying foreign workers up to 15 per cent less than Canadian workers.
Harper Conservatives Repeal the Fair Wages Act
The federal Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act was repealed by a single line in the 425-page federal omnibus budget bill in May of this year. The act mandated minimum wages contractors had to pay their workers on federal government construction contracts, calculated based on the prevailing wages in the geographic region. NDP MP Pat Martin discovered the move just weeks before the budget passed. Prior to that, the government made no mention of its decision.
In response to criticisms, Federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt dismissed the legislation as "unnecessary red tape for employers," which was "really a matter of provincial jurisdiction." At the same time, she maintained that scraping the act would not impact construction wages. Except for her claim that scrapping the act won’t deflate wages, Raitt’s position is lockstep with that of Merit Canada, the anti-union contractors’ association with a history of lobbying against the act. In an open letter to Raitt last fall, Merit Canada criticized the legislation for resulting in workers receiving wages that "often exceed the rates that would be payable in the absence of such policies."
It was a move that had members of the opposition parties fuming, particularly NDP MP Pat Martin who discovered the change among 70 or so other proposed changes in the bill. The former journeyman carpenter said the drop in wages would deter Canadians from entering the construction industry during a debate in the Commons in early May:
"Contractors who bid a job by pricing out labour at 20% and 30% and 40% lower than their competitors will win every job, every time. They will drive down the prevailing wage, because those other contractors will now have to start bidding lower if they are to ever win a job.
"To whose benefit is it to drive down the fair wages of Canadian workers? Let me point out a secondary problem this raises. How are we going to attract bright, young men and women into the building trades if the normal wage is now going to be $8, $9 or $10 an hour instead of the $20 or $30 that it is now? Try feeding a family on $8, $9 or $10 an hour. Nobody in his or her right mind is going to go into that industry."Laurie Hawn Edmonton Centre, AB responded by saying, "Mr. Speaker, I always enjoy the performance of my thespian friend from Winnipeg. I would like to make a connection to something his boss said, who is in favour of shutting down the oil sands. I would like to make the connection between the oil sands and the manufacturing industry in Ontario that he cares so much, which I applaud, and the construction industry across the country.
"Talking about cars and toys for kids, if his boss had his way and shut down the oil sands, there would be nobody in Alberta buying the cars that nobody in Ontario would be making. There would be no workers building, not just in Alberta but in other parts of the country. Could he make that connection for me?"
Scrapping the Fair Wages Act followed the Harper Conservatives ordering workers from both CP Rail and Air Canada back to work, and in each case within a few days of strike action.
Academic Study of Temporary Foreign Workers
In January this year, Nicolas Schmitt from Simon Fraser Uuniversity's Department of Economics, and Dominique Gross from SFUs School of Public Policy, release an academic study called Temporary Foreign Workers and Regional Labour Markets In Canada.
Their report highlights that beginning in 2002, the temporary foreign worker program has been expanded and conditions to access made easier. And although the two authors unequivocally state study in this area of public policy is in its infancy and much more research needs to be done, initial findings into the expansion of the TFWP suggest policy makers got it wrong and changes have been a detriment on Canada’s labour market.
Auditor General’s damning report
Canada’s former Auditor General, Sheila Fraser, released her Fall Report on November 3, 2009 containing the chapter Selecting Foreign Workers Under the Immigration Program including an examination of how the government manages the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. In this damning report, Ms. Fraser exposes major problems with key aspects of Canada's immigration system that finds Ottawa is bringing in big changes with little understanding of the potential consequences. Ms. Fraser said decisions in the Canadian immigration system are increasingly being shifted to the provinces and people who employ immigrants without any follow-up to root out fraud and abuse. She took direct aim at the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which she said is bringing in an increasing number of often low-skilled workers for jobs ranging from oil sands labourers to construction workers on Olympic sites and live-in nannies.
Media investigation into temporary foreign workers
At the same time, the Toronto Star, in a three-part series, investigates Canada’s program for bringing in temporary workers. The Star investigation found the recession, employer abuse and poor monitoring is leaving more and more of these workers vulnerable and without legal employment. The three articles point to a program that "has been widely criticized for being poorly monitored and leaving low-skilled migrants vulnerable to abuse."
Poverty advocacy group takes on issues surrounding temporary foreign workers
In July 2009, Maytree released Naomi Alboim’s report Adjusting the Balance: Fixing Canada’s Economic Immigration Policies, proposing a new national vision for economic immigration. Among the 15 recommendations, Ms Alboim also listed three that dealt with the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. She made the following three recommondations:
Recommendation #1: Eliminate the Low Skill Pilot Project for temporary foreign workers.
Temporary foreign workers are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse at the low end. Unlike the Live-In Caregiver Program which has a built-in transition to permanent residence, and the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program which is tightly controlled, the Low Skill Pilot Project runs the risk of becoming Canada’s version of the European Guest Workers’ program with all its difficulties. Therefore, the Low Skill Pilot Project for temporary foreign workers should be eliminated as soon as possible.
To increase the pool of workers to fill low-skilled jobs on an ongoing basis, employers should make these jobs more attractive to people already in Canada, whether immigrants or Canadian born. In addition, Citizenship and Immigration Canada should increase family class and refugee admissions to provide more labour force participants who, as permanent residents, have rights and access to services to prevent exploitation. Increasing points in the Federal Skilled Worker Program for demand occupations, the trades, and validated job offers will also broaden the pool of workers.
Recommendation #2: Monitor recruitment and working conditions of temporary foreign workers.
While workplace safety and employment standards come under provincial jurisdiction, temporary foreign workers are a federal responsibility. The federal government should therefore provide leadership and support to provinces to help them monitor and enforce the working conditions of temporary foreign workers (including live-in caregivers and seasonal agricultural workers) and to regulate recruitment agencies.
Recommendation #3: Strengthen the "labour market opinion" process.
Before recruiting temporary foreign workers, employers must generally obtain a positive labour market opinion from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada to ensure that the recruitment is warranted.
A strong labour market opinion process is essential to protect unemployed and underemployed Canadians and permanent residents. It also ensures that temporary workers do not jump the queue of applicants for permanent residence. The labour market opinion process should be strengthened in the following ways:
- Require employers to search the database of those already in Canada and those in the applicant inventory recommended above before being considered for approval of a highly skilled temporary worker.
- Provide positive labour market opinions only after the employer’s recruitment practices, training, wages and working conditions have been reviewed and determined not to be a barrier to employing unemployed or underemployed people already in Canada.
- Implement a monitoring system to follow up on employers who were issued positive labour market opinions to ensure the proper treatment of temporary workers and others in the workplace.
Alberta Federation of Labour Takes On Advocacy Work For TFWs
In response to growing concerns, the Alberta Federation of Labour launches a Temporary Foreign Worker Advocate program to offer free services to TFWs needing assistance with work-related problems. The Advocate was launched in April 2007, with Edmonton lawyer Yessy Byl serving as the Advocate.
The Advocate releases findings after six months of assisting TFWs in a report called Temporary Foreign Workers – Alberta’s disposable workforce. The report covers the Advocate’s activities until October 31, 2007.
Then in April 2009, The Advocate releases a second report called Entrenching Exploitation, which highlights re-occurring issues found in the Advocate’s casework. The report documents significant employer abuses and exploitation of foreign workers, plus highlights serious shortcomings of the TFWP Advocate's caseload while serving as a volunteer lawyer and advisor to the program.