Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Temporary Foreign Workers

The Calgary Herald is reporting that 18 bus drivers brought from England a year and a half ago as temporary foreign workers (TFWs) will be forced to return as their work permits expire. These drivers are among the tens of thousands of TFWs—some 57,843 on December 1, 2008—hired during the recent economic boom.

Alberta is not alone in using migrant workers. There were 252,196 TFWs in Canada in 2008—20 times the per-capita rate in the United States. Ontario, for example, has relied on migrant agricultural workers for decades.

While TFW are often thought to meet a need for skilled workers. But approximately half of Alberta’s TFWs work in unskilled jobs. While the economic downturn has resulted in many skilled TFWs returning to their home country, those in low-skill job have remained. In effect, the government’s TFW program is creating a permanent class of migrant workers who do the worst jobs.

A recent development is the interesting suggestion that employers continue to seek TFWs in field where there are not worker shortages. This may reflect employer’s desire for a more easily manipulated workforce.

TFW are easily manipulated because they are particularly vulnerable workers. Their work permits are employer and job specific. That is to say, they have virtually no realistic options for employment if they are treated poorly and want to quit. And complaining to the government carries with it a very real risk of termination. While this sort of retribution is illegal, it is an endemic feature of Canada’s workplaces. The temptation for many employers to break the law is great.

This became evident almost immediately upon expansion of the TFW program, with more than 800 complaints received by Alberta between 2006 and 2008. These complaints centred on unfair wage deductions, fees charged by recruitment agencies and accommodation problems. These issues are typical ways that the powerful exploit the less powerful in the workplace.

In late 2007, Alberta dedicated eight employment standards inspectors to investigate TFW complaints and carry out inspections. Whether eight inspectors enforcing only provincial laws are having a meaningful impact on the situation is highly contestable. Educational campaigns aimed at workers were also carried out—although targeting the victims rather than the perpetrators seems misplaced.

A typical example of the problems that emerge can be seen at an Okotok’s A&W. TFWs there have filed numerous complaints about their treatment. One employee, seeking her employer’s help in converting her temporary visa to a permanent one, alleges she was told could have the requisite supervisor’s position, but only if she returned the associated raise to the employer under the table.

When she refused, she was terminated because “downsizing was necessary”--even though the A&W continued to advertise for workers. The worker also alleged the employer charged 130% more for accommodation than allowed. When the employee complained to Alberta’s temporary foreign workers office, it referred her to other government agencies. If the foreign worker does not follow up on the referrals, the complaint is forwarded to employment standards.

Things seem to be worsening for TFW with the economic downturn. In 2009, 74% of TFW employers inspected by the province violated employment standards. In 2008, only 56% of employers were found non-compliant. Half of the violations were for failing to pay workers properly for overtime, vacations and statutory holidays.

Bizarrely, Minister of Employment and Immigration Thomas Lukaszuk called this a "really good news story". His rationale was that a high percentage of valid complaints indicated worker education efforts were successful. This seems to ignore that a high percentage of employer’s violating the floor of rights—the minimally acceptable treatment in our society—suggests that these vulnerable workers are being exploited.

-- Bob Barnetson

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