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What Do We Owe Our Guest Workers?

Debate rises over how to lower abuse, and whether to make staying easier.

Tom Sandborn 1 Jun

Tom Sandborn covers labour and health policy beats for The Tyee. He welcomes story tips and feedback at [email protected].

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'If they are good enough to work here...'

"You're good enough to work here for a while, but now go home."

The latest batch of more than 175,000 foreign temporary workers in Canada can expect to hear that message. It's the deal. We get workers we need to make our economy function better. They get pay and a limited taste of life in a nation regularly voted one of the world's best places to live.

Lately though, disagreement is growing over whether or not this social contract is fair or in need of reform.

The Harper government appears to consider it a problem that too many guest workers wish to stay. Government proposals have been floated that would make it tougher for those who enter Canada on temporary work permits to apply for permanent landed immigrant status.

But a recently released research paper by the Montreal-based Institute for Research on Public Policy focuses instead on evidence that temporary guest workers are too easily abused while in Canada.

Federal Auditor General Sheila Fraser made headlines with similar concerns in the fall.

The Auditor General and the IRPP researchers were echoing many advocates for immigrants, refugees and temporary workers, who have portrayed Canada's programs as too often plagued by fraudulent labor brokers, abusive employers and cumbersome, inefficient government bureaucracies.

Meanwhile, one union, through collective bargaining, has made it possible for more foreign temporary workers to settle in Canada.

'Disposable' workers?

In 2009, Canada admitted about two-thirds as many temporary workers on short term visas as it did regular immigrants who will be allowed to remain in Canada for life. Last year, there were 252,124 new immigrants admitted to Canada, and 178,640 temporary workers.

Brought to Canada under a number of programs, temporary foreign workers pick Canadian crops, serve as nannies and elder-care aids, flip burgers and work on infrastructure and office building construction projects, to name just a few of the niches in the country's economy that are filled by these "disposable workers."

Canadians were briefly reminded of the plight facing these often invisible workers on Christmas Eve in Toronto last year, when Alexander Bondorev, Aleksey Blumberg, Fayzulla Fazilov and Vladimir Korostin, all in Canada under Temporary Foreign Worker Program visas, fell 13 stories to their to their deaths from a collapsing scaffold on a construction project where they were apparently working without safety harnesses or proper safety training.

With the exception of a few highly skilled workers at the top of the job market, most temporary workers are expected to pack up and return home once their job is completed.

For farm workers here under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, the short stay in Canada is more than just an expectation. Unlike other temporary workers, the people here under the SAWP are not eligible to apply for immigrant status at all.

When should they be able to stay?

The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which operates nine projects across Canada to aid, support and organize agricultural workers -- who increasingly are brought to Canada from the global south under temporary visas -- has long argued that any temporary worker who completes two years in Canadian agriculture should be eligible to apply for permanent status.

Now the independent scholars at Research in Public Policy have argued that even in the non-agricultural sectors where it is theoretically possible for temporary workers to attain permanent status in Canada, most lower-skilled workers are effectively denied such paths to economic integration.

The Montreal-based researchers note that: "In the field of employment, there is a discrepancy between policy and practice in regard to temporary foreign workers' rights. A significant factor is the restrictive nature of the work permit (temporary foreign workers are often tied to one job, one employer and one location), which can have the practical effect of limiting their employment rights and protections. Other problems include illegal recruitment practices, misinformation about migration opportunities and lack of enforcement mechanisms. In the context of employment, Canada seems indifferent to temporary foreign workers' future position in society."

Last November, the Auditor General told Parliament that flaws in the current system for temporary foreign workers create "risks to program integrity and could leave many foreign workers in a vulnerable position, particularly those who are physically or linguistically isolated from the general community or are unaware of their rights."

Changes by the Harper government

Early this year, Federal Minister of Citizenship, Immigration, and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney introduced changes in regulation that were designed to address "rising concerns for the fair treatment of those entering Canada under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program."

The changes would allow for more investigation into whether jobs proposed for temporary foreign workers are genuine, and impose mild penalties of exclusion for a few years from access to the visa granting programs against employers found to have paid egregiously low wages or provided low quality working conditions for temporary workers. The names of firms so excluded would be made public.

In a key provision, the new regulations would hold that any temporary foreign worker who had worked in Canada for four years would be denied access to further Canadian work for the following six years. So, while the new regulations might catch a few bad actors on the employer side, it will more significantly impose limits on temporary workers building up a history of extended work in Canada.

These limits will not apply to high-skill workers such as NAFTA Professionals and Intra Company transfer employees.

This reinforces a bias in favor of high skill workers, critics say -- a bias noted by the IRPP researchers.

'Abolish these programs': immigrant advocate

At least one migrant worker advocacy group told The Tyee that attempts to reform temporary foreign worker programs are doomed to fail. Harsha Walia, who speaks for the group No One Is Illegal said that abuse of temporary workers cannot be ended by "tweaking the system with small changes."

"The abuses are inherent in the temporary nature of the permission to stay in Canada. Tweaking the program just perpetuates the injustice. These programs can't be reformed. They need to be abolished," she said.

Walia told The Tyee that when all programs that bring temporary workers into Canada are taken into account, 2008 and 2009 saw more temporary workers admitted to Canada than permanent immigrants.

That assertion has been contested in an article published by the conservative-leaning Canada West think tank.

The Tyee contacted the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development to ask for clarification on these contested statistics and for comment on claims the current Canadian system is unfair to temporary workers. HRSDC referred our questions to Citizenship and Immigration Canada but media spokespeople for that government body did not make themselves available for comment before this story was filed.

Collective bargaining to stay in Canada

Short of the kind of total transformation of the system that No One is Illegal and other worker advocates hope for, some temporary workers in Canada are getting help from the United Food and Commercial Workers, the largest private sector union in the country.

Early this year, UFCW workers at a Maple Leaf plant in Brandon, Manitoba won a new contract that included language requiring the employer to process all the necessary paperwork leading to permanent residency status of all migrant worker members pursuant to the Foreign Worker Provincial Nominee Program.

The PNP is one of the only routes available for lower skilled temporary foreign workers who hope to apply for landed immigrant status, and one that involves a daunting volume of complex paperwork.

The new contract will help make the Temporary Foreign Worker program "a permanent immigration program which places the migrant worker at the front of the immigration line as a result of union negotiations," according to a UFCW release.

Another union victory that has implications for temporary foreign workers was won at the BC Labour Relations Board, which ruled this April in favor of the more than 70 temporary foreign workers who had voted to certify the UFCW to represent them last year. The ballot box had been sealed for some time due to legal appeals launched by the employer, a B.C. nursery firm, Sidhu and Sons, based in Mission.

The ruling makes Sidhu the second bargaining unit made up of temporary foreign workers represented in B.C. agriculture by the UFCW local 1518. The first bargaining unit, whose contract was ratified in September 2009, is Floralia Growers near Abbotsford.

"These victories show that we are ready," Lucy Luna, an organizer at the UFCW sponsored Agricultural Workers Alliance store-front office in the Fraser Valley told The Tyee. "Sidhu was a great victory, and we will keep organizing. We want workers to have union representation and we want farm workers to be able to stay in Canada once they are brought here under the SAWP.

"If they are good enough to work here," she adds, "they are good enough to stay."  [Tyee]

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