Can Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program Be Fixed?

Yesterday the Harper government responded to increasing public pressure and announced significant changes to Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

Pressure on the government has been mounting since the CBC broke the story earlier in April of how Canada’s largest bank, RBC, was replacing dozens of its Canadian staff with temporary workers from India who had been hired to take over their department.

minerThis comes on top of news that a mining company in BC had been allowed to bring in 201 miners from China despite the fact that qualified Canadian workers had applied for the positions.

The Rise in Temporary Foreign Workers

The use of temporary foreign workers has dramatically increased since the Conservative government came to power.

Between 2007 and 2011, 30 per cent of all net new jobs in Canada went to migrant workers — during a period of high unemployment in this country.

Since 2008 the number of temporary foreign workers has increased by 60 per cent in Toronto, 70 per cent in Quebec, and 80 per cent in the Atlantic Provinces – all of which continue to have high rates of unemployed Canadians. Last week the Alberta Federation of Labour released a report stating that three out of four jobs created in the province over the last few years were filled by temporary foreign workers instead of Canadians.

The number of temporary foreign workers entering the Canadian workforce each year is now greater than the number of permanent workers receiving visas. And while limits are set for the number of new immigrants admitted to Canada each year, there are no limits to the number of foreign workers that may be approved. Today over 340,000 temporary foreign workers are employed in Canada.

migrant workersTemporary foreign workers do not have the same rights as other workers. They are required to pay into the Employment Insurance Program but are ineligible for any of its benefits. They are not covered under the national health care plan. If they are injured on the job their contracts can be terminated and the employees sent back to their country of origin. And federal legislation allows them to be paid up to 15% less than Canadian workers – even if this falls below the minimum wage.

If temporary foreign workers quit their jobs for any reason, they cannot look for other employment (their work is tied to a specific contract) and they may be deported. Temporary workers are subject to harassment, exploitation, unsafe working conditions and substandard housing with little government oversight to ensure that the terms of their contracts are being honoured.

In 2009, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced that his department would publish online a list of employers found to be flouting the rules, and they would be subject to sanctions. Four years later, that bad-boss website doesn’t contain a single name of a single company.

The stated goal of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program is to enable “employers to hire foreign workers on a temporary basis to fill immediate skills and labour shortages, when Canadian citizens and permanent residents are not available to do the job.” However, many employers have used the program to avoid training Canadian workers and to hire labourers in unskilled jobs at less then minimum wage.

Tim Hortons[While] the federal government has granted thousands of fast-tracked work permits designed for employers seeking high-skilled migrant workers … documents show many migrant workers brought in … are actually toiling in fast-food restaurants, convenience stores and gas stations.

Tim Hortons is one of many employers to take advantage of this program. Between 2007 and 2012 it received permission to bring close to 15,000 temporary foreign workers to Canada.

Fixing the Abuses

In response to these and other massive problems with the program, yesterday the Harper government announced some significant revisions to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Effective immediately, these changes will ensure that

– employers will be required to pay temporary foreign workers at the prevailing wage offered to Canadians (eliminating the 15% pay reduction)

– the program is not used to facilitate the outsourcing of Canadian jobs

– the government will have increased authority to suspend and revoke the work permits of employers who misuse the program

– employers using the program have a firm plan in place to transition to a Canadian work force over time, and

– fees for work permits are increased so taxpayers are no longer subsidizing the program’s costs.

It is a very good start – especially for protecting Canadian jobs. But the rights of these temporary workers also need to be protected. The government  needs to take further steps to ensure that these workers are not being exploited during their stay in Canada.

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About politspectator
Edward Clayton grew up in the US but has lived in Canada for the last 4 decades. He is a long time peace activist and committed to issues of social justice and good government. He reports on Canadian, American, and global politics from a Canadian perspective.

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