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Labour + Industry

Construction Union Says Program Abused for Cheap Labour

Program intended for workers beneficial to Canada is used to fill construction jobs at lower wages, says union study.

Jeremy Nuttall 31 Jan

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee’s reader-funded Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

A construction workers’ union has released a report arguing employers are bringing in cheap foreign labour for construction projects in British Columbia by misusing a program meant for other specialized workers.

The Laborers’ International Union of North America, which represents 100,000 construction workers in Canada, used government data to determine 2,500 construction jobs in B.C. were filled by foreign workers given permits via the International Mobility Program in 2015 and 2016.

Mark Olsen, Western Canada manager of LIUNA, said the paper highlights the program’s use for construction.

“While the federal government has told us the IMP is really not for construction workers... the stats clearly show that companies are using the IMP with no process at all bringing in hundreds of construction workers,” Olsen said.

LIUNA used data from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada to track which fields employees with work permits granted through the IMP program and its cousin the Temporary Foreign Worker Program are working in.

According to the program’s online profile, the IMP is meant for workers who provide a benefit for Canada via “broader economic, cultural or other competitive advantages,” parameters that LIUNA has complained are too broad in the past.

Unlike the TFWP, the IMP does not require employers to show efforts are made to hire Canadians before they can apply to bring in foreign workers.

The LIUNA report found 700 building tradespeople working in B.C. were granted permits for the program in 2015 and 2016.

Another 1,825 working in construction-related fields, such as civil engineers and architects, also used the program from 2015-2016 (the two years with the most recent data available according to the union).

A breakdown shows carpenters, iron workers, millwrights and electricians among the list of 37 occupations categorized.

About 50,000 workers were in B.C. via the Temporary Foreign Worker Program or IMP in 2015. The two programs accounted for about 5,200 jobs in the construction industry, according to LIUNA’s findings.

Olsen said though the number of workers under the IMP for construction jobs may seem small, when combined with lower wages, it can affect the median wages in some sectors.

“It doesn’t take thousands of construction workers in a particular craft as foreign workers to throw off the whole market,” Olsen said. “Especially in work such as pipeline or industrial construction.”

Previous studies where the union examined media reports suggest a gap in wages being paid to those brought into Canada as foreign workers.

Olsen also pointed to high-profile examples, such as the construction of the Canada Line in Vancouver in which foreign workers were underpaid, as proof such labour can depress construction wages.

Olsen said such practices could take place in B.C.’s construction industry. He said Ottawa needs to implement measures to ensure foreign workers are paid prevailing wages.

He said the union isn’t against the program, as long as it’s used properly and the workers coming in are treated fairly, paid properly and have a path to citizenship.

Labour Minister Patty Hajdu told The Tyee on Parliament Hill Tuesday she had not seen the report but will review it.

She said she has heard complaints of a labour shortage from employers and provincial counterparts.

“Even though they’re doing what they feel is a very thorough job looking for that labour... they’re still not able to find it,” Hajdu said. “I’m hearing those concerns and they’re just starting to come forward in a significant volume.”

She said the government is looking for “creative solutions” to ensure there’s a healthy labour pool in which Canadians get “fist crack.”

Told of Hajdu’s comments, Olsen said need may differ across the economy and country, but in construction he said his union and others have unemployed members.

Hajdu’s predecessor MaryAnn Mihychuk told The Tyee in 2016 she was “absolutely” open to reviewing any impacts Canada’s foreign worker programs have on the construction industry in Western Canada.

Mihychuk was removed from her position months later, and Hajdu would not say Tuesday if she was open to such a study.  [Tyee]

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