Canada’s temporary foreign worker program needs permanent overhaul

With the bottom dropping out of the global economy, labour protests are spreading across Europe. The workers’ demand is simple: access to work.
In February, Britain was hammered by a wave of wildcat strikes triggered by the use of Italian and Portuguese construction workers on a new nuclear plant. Millions struck in France the same week.
Without leadership from employers, government and labour, the same conflicts could break out here.
In November 2007, when BC’s red-hot economy churned out a record 32,000 jobs, the drive was on for a massive expansion in the temporary foreign worker program. Provincial officials were demanding 30,000 additional workers for construction, hospitality and food services.
Fast forward to January 2009 and BC loses 35,000 jobs, the largest monthly fall in on record. Employment is over six percent and climbing. What happens to those temporary foreign workers now?
Bernardino Julve, director of the Labor Office at Vancouver’s Philippine Consulate General, believes layoffs suffered by Filipino workers in construction may be made up in hospitality or food processing, where employer demand remains strong.
One Filipino group recently terminated from an oil sands project had two choices – a ticket home or a period of unemployment while they wait for a new employer with a “labour market opinion.” This vital confirmation that they are working in an “occupation under pressure” is required for them to work legally. About 40 percent headed home.
The remainder are waiting, fingers crossed, for a new employer. Are are they?
But Wayne Peppard, executive director of the BV and Yukon Building Trades Council, says the trip home may not be an option for workers who borrowed the feeds paid to labour contractors to secure work.
Those workers may join the growing underground economy and find work wherever they can. Vulnerable to exploitation and deportation, they will exert a heavy downward pressure on wages and working conditions. If the Canadian unemployment lines begin to grow longer, the conflicts obvious in Europe would soon take root here.
Immigration lawyers agree that Service Canada and the Canada Immigration and Customs have already taken steps to slow the flow of new workers. The expedited labour market opinions, which essentially gave employers carte blance, are harder to come by. More jobs must be advertised.
But the Temporary Foreign Worker program was notoriously unsupervised. Diplomats from countries like El Salvador, Mexico and the Philippines often have little idea where their workers are located, how they are being treated or whether or not they remain in Canada.
So far, Peppard says, employment remains relatively strong in construction, particularly for more skilled trades. There is time to fix the problems in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, plan for the future and ensure the rights of workers, both foreign and Canadian are protected.
“This all falls back to the government,” Peppard says. “In their haste to get the program in place, they failed to put proper funding or enforcement in place. The expedited labour market opinions should be stopped. The ‘occupations under pressure’ list should be suspended. Let’s sit down and figure out what was wrong and what was right.”
There may be a long-term role for temporary foreign workers, Peppard says, but they must be used where shortages are real. They must have full access to Canadian human and labour rights and not be dependent on a particular employer.
Without such reforms, he warns, BC runs the risk of “a racist backlash. That’s the fear.”

Business in Vancouver, March 10, 2009