By Bobbie Saga
The BC Federation of Labour (BCFL) is stepping up pressure on the Harper Conservatives to not only conduct a full, open, and transparent review of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), but also place a moratorium on the program until a comprehensive investigation is conducted.
The move to increase pressure on the federal government came during this week’s BC Federation of Labour "Together for a Better BC" convention held in Vancouver. Delegates passed an emergency resolution Wednesday that includes calling for a moratorium on the program until a comprehensive review is conducted.
This latest move by labour groups follows the federal government recently launching an investigation into the use of foreign workers at a coal mine in northern BC.
Jim Sinclair, BCFL President, says the investigation is welcome because the program is being abused and jobs being offered to foreign labour are not temporary in nature. Sinclair also says although he is "cautiously optimistic" about the review, he is concerned about the government investigating itself.
"We're cautiously optimistic but frankly worried that it's only the government investigating itself, and we'd prefer to have an independent review," says Sinclair.
Others, however, are not convinced change is on the way for the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, or as generous in their comments about the investigation.
Gil McGowan, Alberta Federation of Labour President, says the Harper Conservatives "created a monster" when it relaxed requirements for companies to prove foreign workers were needed. And he says the same people that "messed up" the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, "can't be trusted to fix it."
"They no longer have to keep records of Canadians that have applied." McGowan says.
"They no longer have to explain why the Canadians were not picked. All they have to do is post an on-line ad, and they don't have to demonstrate that Canadians have actually applied or not."
McGowan adds the program has expanded to cover menial labour and other jobs. And, he says, because workers are sent home after four years, "the program has created an exploited, disposable workforce."
As well, the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC) launched a complaint earlier this month with the BC Human Rights Tribunal on behalf of four temporary foreign workers from Mexico employed at two Tim Hortons locations in Dawson Creek, BC.
Living two to a room, in a five bedroom home, workers were asked to pay $200.00 each at the beginning of the month, and then asked by the employer for an additional $200.00 rent mid-month, which their employer allegedly referred to as a "tip."
"When Tim Hortons advertises the Double Double, I don’t believe this is what most Canadians had in mind," Eugene Kung, counsel with BCPIAC, said when the complaint was filed.
The complaint alleges that in total the employer received $4,000 a month in rent from each of two separate homes where he required his employees to live. In addition to overcharging workers for rent, the complaint asserts the workers were subjected to derogatory racist comments including "[expletive] Mexican workers are lazy" and "Mexican idiots," while the employer described himself as the "owner of their lives."
"When these workers raised any concerns about their working or living conditions, the employer threatened to send them back to Mexico," said Kung.
It is also alledged the employer regularly asked the workers from Mexico for their passports, would hold them for periods of time, and that two of the workers were fired after they complained about their working conditions, while others were forced to leave for fear of reprisals.
"These workers were left vulnerable to a flawed program where the power dynamic benefits the employer and creates a ripe situation for the exploitation of the workers," Kung added.
The next day, Tim Hortons spokeswoman Alexandra Cygal said the company learned about the allegations in the complaint just prior to it being submitted, but that Van Den Bosch, the owner/operator, has not been with the chain since July 2012.
She says the company doesn't condone any of the behaviours or allegations made in the complaint.
More information on abuses with the TFWP:
Alberta Federation 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 the 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.
Alberta Federation of Labour Backgrounder: Temporary Foreign Worker Program
Low Wage Agenda
In April 2012, the Conservative government made changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) Program by introducing an Accelerated Labour Market Opinion (ALMO) stream for higher‐skilled foreign workers. The ALMO stream is clearly designed to drive down wages: employers can pay workers under the TFW Program up to 15 per cent less than Canadian workers [Link to news release and technical background document].
Canadians Shut Out of Hiring
Under the ALMO stream, employers do not have to consider hiring Canadians first before turning to the TFW Program for foreign labour.
Under the ALMO stream, fewer than 20 per cent of successful applications are subject to a compliance review.
In 2010, the Alberta NDP uncovered Alberta government documents showing that 74 per cent of employers with workers under the TFW Program were in violation of the Alberta Labour Code [Link to Alberta NDP Opposition news release].
The review that led to the April changes to TFW rules was conducted behind closed doors, with no input from the public. Only employers were invited to participate. The AFL and other groups asked to make submissions, but were refused.
Bogus Labour Shortage
The Alberta Federation of Labour has shown that the Alberta government’s claims of a catastrophic "labour shortage" are not credible and overblown [Link to AFL news release].
Many New Jobs Going to Foreign Workers
Jim Stanford, Chief Economist for the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), found that nearly 30 per cent of new jobs in Canada were filled by workers under the TFW Program [Linl to Stanford’s work].
Alberta #1 Destination for Workers under the TFW Program
In 2011, Alberta employers were approved to bring in 50,840 workers under the TFW Program, the most in the country (Ontario was second with 47,635) [Link to federal government statistics].