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Temporary Foreign Workers: Abuse, Exploitation Could Be Solved With Immigration Fix, Experts Say


OTTAWA — The problems caused by the federal Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) Program could be fixed easily if low-skilled workers were given easier access to citizenship, several stakeholders told The Huffington Post Canada.

While some argued the foreign workers program is necessary to respond to employers’ needs, others said the TFW Program is so flawed the only solution is to scrap it.

Any low-skilled labour needs should be filled by immigrants already in the country or by an increased number of new refugees, one stakeholder said.

Yet others warn the TFW Program could lead to an explosion of illegal immigrants in the country, if temporary workers aren’t given a pathway to permanent resident status.

“We need to start to have an adult conversation in Canada about the world of work,” Dan Kelly, the president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), told HuffPost this week.

“There are a whole bunch of jobs that Canadians really just don’t want to do. A lot of places in Canada where Canadians just don’t really want to live and (yet) we don’t really want foreign workers to come in and do those jobs either. Something is not going to work.”

Canada tells the world’s best and brightest to come over with their PhDs and MDs and set up shop, but when many get here they have trouble having their qualifications recognized and they end up “miserable” driving taxis or working as cleaners because those are the only jobs available, he said.

At the same time, temporary foreign workers who have gained Canadian experience and language skills are only allowed to stay in Canada for four years.

“We have to say goodbye to them, when the employer is saying, ‘Gosh, I wish I could have hung on to that person.’ ... And then we bring another PhD to work in a restaurant or drive a taxi and we somehow think that that is a better system,” Kelly said.

“Right now, we have a very dishonest immigration system,” he added.

The CFIB has called on the Conservative government to change the immigration system to target lower-skilled occupations and provide all temporary foreign workers access to permanent residency — a measure that’s only available to some workers.

Joey Calugay from the Immigrant Workers Centre in Montreal said most temporary foreign workers want to stay in Canada. In many cases, these workers were duped into believing the TFW program was an entry point to immigration, he said.

“Those are the promises that are being made to them when they are going through the process,” Calugay said. “I think many are misled. I think many don’t even understand that this program exists and is temporary, and (many of them) don’t have a chance to apply for permanent residence.”

During a recent training session, landscapers from the Philippines, Jamaica and Costa Rica were surprised to find out there was no way for them, as low-skilled workers, to apply for permanent residency in Quebec, he said. “That is the normal reaction that we get.”

If temporary foreign workers were allowed to apply for citizenship or if the immigration system allowed more lower-skilled applicants, it would ensure safer work conditions, Calugay said.

Some temporary foreign workers are exploited because their work permits are tied to the employer who brought them to Canada, he said. “(That) means they are not going to complain or if they do complain they could lose their job … so a lot of them don’t.”

The Immigrant Workers Centre worked with Bangladeshi cooks employed in a restaurant in Longueuil, Que., who earned less than $4 an hour. The Centre documented farm workers who were let go after protesting severely unsafe work conditions and a butcher who was fired for demanding thousands in back pay.

“Opening up (the immigration system) to low-skill categories would certainly address the precariousness of their situation of being tied to one employer,” Calugay said.

Sharryn Aiken, an associate dean in the law faculty at Queen’s University, said she “100 per cent” believes temporary foreign workers should be allowed to apply for citizenship and that the immigration system should be changed to allow more lower-skilled applicants.

“You’re not necessarily accepting everybody but it is saying to temporary foreign workers you are here because we need your skills and labour,” she said, pointing to the example of live-in caregivers, who can apply for permanent residency.

Aiken’s colleague, Naomi Alboim, the chair of the School of Policy Studies Policy Forum at Queen’s, disagrees.

Alboim said the temporary foreign worker program should be cancelled immediately because there are already workers in Canada who are unemployed or underemployed who can fill the need for low-skilled jobs.

She said new immigrants — people who came through the family class category or who arrived as refugees — are willing to work and are finding it difficult to find a job.

“They would be quite happy to work in a Tim Hortons as an entry to the labour market to be able to support their family,” she said. Bringing in low-skilled workers as economic-class immigrants isn’t the solution, she added.

Alboim said that while Canada accepts about 250,000 new permanent residents a year, it accepts more than 300,000 temporary foreign workers a year who fill jobs that are often not temporary.

Why not accept more permanent residents and accept less temporary workers? she asks.

“Or why don’t we bring in more refugees? We’ll be contributing significantly to the humanitarian component of our immigration system, we will be contributing to the world and we will get people who can fill a lot of these low-skilled jobs and can become long-lasting loyal employees rather than a revolving door of employees that employers have to train,” she said.

Tim Hortons’ senior manager of public affairs Alexandra Cygal said their restaurants have been hiring temporary foreign workers since 2005. Most of the hires have been in places where there is a shortage of labour, she said, such as Alberta.

“Our owners turn to the temporary foreign worker program after they have exhausted all other avenues to fill job vacancies locally. (They) prefer to hire locally rather than go to the expense and administrative needs of hiring temporary foreign workers, but without this employment program, many Tim Hortons restaurants would not be able to operate full time or, in many cases, remain open at all,” Cygal said.

Tim Hortons prices, Cygal said, are set by the head office, which means if franchisees want to pay employees more to attract Canadian workers, they would have to absorb the cost in their profit margins.

No Labour Shortage … If You Pay Enough

Simon Fraser University business professor Nicolas Schmitt believes there is no low-skilled labour shortage in Canada, but rather that employers are unwilling to pay wages that will attract unemployed Canadians.

Schmitt said he’s not certain temporary foreign workers need easier access to the immigration system because the program already serves as a “back-door” towards permanent residency.

“A real temporary foreign worker is like (someone) in agriculture — you come, you pick the fruit, you go back,” he said. “Now, you can stay (for multiple years) or (be) sponsored by provinces to become permanent as is the case in Alberta and elsewhere,” he said, referring to the Provincial Nominee Program — a program that allows each province to set different rules to attract desired immigrants.

“The immigration policies are (a) mess. It is no longer clear cut with (the merit) points (system). There are all kinds of backdoors which I don’t find very smart to do,” he added.

Tiana Gabriel, a spokesperson for the department of Citizenship and Immigration, told HuffPost the federal government is building a “fast and flexible economic immigration system whose primary focus is on meeting Canada’s labour market needs.”

Low-skilled workers represent less than half of all TFWs, she wrote in an email.

The Conservatives recently introduced changes to the Federal Skilled Workers program to make it easier for skilled tradespersons — actual welders rather than managers — to apply for permanent residency, she wrote. “These changes are intended to keep up with national labour market needs and meet projected shortages in skilled occupations over the long term.”

Gabriel said the Provincial Nominee Program also allows some provinces to choose certain temporary workers for permanent status if the province believes they fulfil their “immigration needs.”

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ senior economist Armine Yalnizyan acknowledged the Provincial Nominee Program is used as fast-track route for some temporary foreign workers, but she said it hasn’t kept pace with the TFW Program’s explosive growth.

When the Conservative government came to office, there were 160,780 temporary foreign workers accepted into Canada. By 2011, that number had ballooned to 300, 211.

“If somebody is good enough to come here and do the job for four years, surely to heaven they are good enough to stay here if they want to — whatever that job is and whatever the pay is,” Yalnizyan said.

“Even in the 1800s, when we brought in Chinese workers to build the railway, they weren’t brought in temporarily, they were brought in as landed immigrants,” she added.

Without more avenues for permanent status, Yalnizyan warned Canada faces an increase in undocumented workers.

“If you are here for four years, the chances are — especially if you are young — that there is a possibility that you will have a child at the end of four years, and what person would not prefer to raise their child in a relatively peaceful place with good quality health care and education?

“People go underground, we know that.”

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