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A Tyee Series

The Invisibles: Migrant Workers in Canada

Reports of exploited foreign temps have grown as fast as the federal program. First in a series.

By Krystle Alarcon, 7 Jan 2013, TheTyee.ca

Abbottsford migrant workers

Guatemalan migrant farm workers near Delta, B.C., who asked to have their identities hidden. Photo: Justin Langille.

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They hand you a soothing cup of Tim Hortons, pack frozen beef in factories, pick blueberries and apples on Abbotsford farms, serve fast-food meals and wipe tables, excavate mines and drill for oil in Western Canada, and raise your kids as if they were their own. Typically paid far less than Canadians, unprotected by labour laws, and disposed of when their contracts end, these migrant labourers have become ubiquitous while remaining all but invisible.

Under the Conservative government, the pool of migrant labour has expanded rapidly with almost no public discussion or oversight -- yet who benefits, and at what cost?

There were 300,111 migrant workers in Canada in 2011-- a more than three-fold increase over the previous decade. Another 190,769 entered that year, creating a temporary foreign workforce of nearly half a million. In 2010, the government accepted one and a half times more migrant workers than permanent Canadian residents.

Migrant workers have been cycling in and out of Canada since 1972, when the Non-Immigrant Employment Authorization Program was introduced. In 2002 it expanded to become the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) to service the oil and gas industries in Alberta.

Since the Conservative government of Stephen Harper came to power in 2006, the TFWP has expanded rapidly, becoming an unseen pillar of Canada's economic policy. That year, migrant workers admitted to Canada exceeded permanent residents for the first time. And for the first time, employers no longer had to advertise for a minimum of six weeks on a national job bank before being granted permission to hire a migrant, but could do so after just seven days. The shortened processing was a gift to employers, who were allowed to designate workers they needed under "Occupations Under Pressure."

So fast growing are such designations that between 2007 and 2011, the program created a total of almost 30 per cent of all new jobs -- this at a time when the government, grappling with the financial crisis, claimed that creating jobs for Canadians was a key priority. And in 2012, under a little-noted provision of the omnibus budget bill that managed to avoid public debate by sliding in with so much other legislation, the Conservatives introduced changes for high-skilled workers such as dropping application times from 12 weeks to 10 days and permitting employers to pay them 15 per cent less than the average Canadian salary for the same work.

Critics argue that such changes lower standards for all workers, and that it won't be long before the majority of migrant workers, who are considered "low-skilled" in fast-growing sectors such as construction, hospitality, caregiving and agriculture, can legally be paid less than Canadians -- a trend that is already happening, due to the lack of oversight. Many endure mistreatment that, in the most severe case to date, has cost lives.

On April 27, 2007, Canadians woke up to news that two Chinese migrant workers employed by Sinopec Shanghai Engineering Canada near Fort McMurray had been killed when a tank's structure fell on them. Charged with violating safety standards, Sinopec, a part owner of the pipeline transport company Enbridge, initially argued that the Chinese state-owned company "has no official presence" in Canada and therefore did not fall under Canadian jurisdiction. Only recently, on Oct. 10, 2012, did the company plead guilty to three safety violations.

Growing list of abuses

Reports of migrant workers being exploited by powerful corporations have increased almost as fast as the TFWP.

In Oct. 2008, migrant workers at Maple Leaf Foods in Edmonton went on strike with their Canadian counterparts for not receiving the $15 per hour promised in their contracts. Many relied on food banks during the strike as they couldn't survive on the strike wage of $230/week and could not, because of the nature of their work permits, work elsewhere.

On Christmas Eve of 2009, four migrant workers, whose names and the company they worked for were not disclosed, died when the scaffolding of the building they were constructing fell on them.

In May 2009, youth and multiculturalism critic and Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla was criticized for allegedly abusing her caregivers from the Philippines, by forcing them to do work outside their contract and underpaying them.

In Nov. 2010, the UN's International Labour Organization found Ontario, and Canada, guilty of violating the rights of 100,000 migrant and domestic farm workers in the province by banning farm unions. In May 2011 three Filipino temporary workers, dubbed "the Three Amigos," were deported when their permits became invalid after their employers in Alberta laid them off due to the recession. They worked at a Manitoba gas station for another employer who promised to change their permits, but never did.

Roof collapse

Storage tank roof collapsed in April 2007 killing two Chinese migrant workers employed by Sinopec Shanghai Engineering Canada near Fort McMurray. (CBC)

In May 2012, a union staged a blacklist tribunal in front of the Mexican consulate for all the farm workers who have allegedly been sent home for attempting to unionize. Later in June, the exotic dancer stream of the TFWP was cut after the immigration and the human resources departments deemed that there were risks of human trafficking and exploitation within the stream. And this fall the premier of B.C. was severely criticized for advertising a Chinese mining project as a way to bring jobs to Canadians, when up to 2,000 Chinese migrant workers will be recruited to work in mines -- rather than offering the jobs to locals, including the First Nations from those areas. The job ads also listed Mandarin as a language requirement, ruling out most Canadians from applying.

It was also discovered in an investigation by The Tyee that Chinese workers were being charged recruitment fees of more than $12,500 in exchange for work in the mine. Two unions have challenged the Chinese workers' entries, through a judicial review that was approved by the Federal Court. As the controversy grew, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada announced it was reviewing the entire program.

XL Foods, based in Alberta, also came under fire for laying off 2,000 workers, 800 of whom turned out to be migrant workers, after the massive beef recall in September 2012.

And earlier in November four Mexican migrant workers filed a human rights case against their employer at Tim Horton's in Dawson Creek, B.C., who they say gave them the "double-double" treatment, by doubling them up in bunk beds and charging them double in rent, as well as withholding their passports and calling them, according to reports, "Mexican idiots" -- charges their employer said were "made up."

Alberta's two-tier labour system

Alberta currently has the highest per capita use of migrant workers, largely due to the oil sands projects -- 22 times higher than the rest of the Canada -- and their situation reveals troubling rates of mistreatment. As a 2010 audit by the Alberta Ministry of Employment and Immigration discovered, 74 per cent of migrant workers were mistreated by their employers, who typically violated labour laws on overtime, holiday and vacation pay.

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, sees the treatment of migrant workers as an issue that affects Canadians directly. "They are being used as pawns to drive down wages and conditions across the board, especially in the service sector but also in higher income sectors like construction."

McGowan thinks the growing reliance on temporary foreign labour is a move backwards for Canada: "The Harper government is changing that model in a profound way without any kind of public discussion: to replace the citizenship-based model with a model focused on creating underclassed ghettos of exploitable workers."

He foresees future labour tensions, such as those in Western Europe and the Middle East where "guest workers" perform work their citizens refuse to do. "It set off a powder keg of resentments and animosities between the guest workers and the citizens of the countries in which they are working," he says. The citizens felt that the guest workers "were being used to undermine their wages and conditions, which frankly, they are."

Tomorrow: In B.C., imported temporary tunnelers blew the whistle on unfair conditions and sought to join a union.  [Tyee]

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