Alberta review of Temporary Foreign Worker program raises questions for Victoria, Ottawa

Last month, 17 migrant workers – 16 Mexicans and one Venezuelan, all but three of them undocumented – complained to BC’s Employment Standards Branch that a Richmond painting contractor had cheated them of $72,000 in unpaid wages.
Their story, and their failure to find justice, has highlighted a serious problem in Canada’s immigration policy that deserves provincial review.
“I feel disillusioned by the system here,” one woman worker told The Province. “It has failed to protect me.”
The workers had been employed to paint a Vancouver condominium, then denied payment.
The employer denied the charge, saying they had been fired because of their undocumented status. He said he had offered $13,000 to settle their claims.
But the workers say he was well aware of their status and even promised to help them become legal residents.
The ESB continues to investigate, but its work is hampered by the workers’ fear of deportation. The evidence they have offered to back up their claims cannot be disclosed to the employer without opening them to enforcement action by the Canadian Border Services Agency.
This incident highlights a critical problem in Canada’s emerging immigration system, which is increasingly moving to a new model of temporary workers without full access to Canadian rights and freedoms.
The number of workers coming to Canada under the new programs now exceeds those arriving through conventional immigration channels. They may be agricultural workers, construction workers, students, professionals or food service workers.
But an unknown number – those who run afoul of their employers or simply do not want to return – are joining the underground economy where rules no longer apply.
Not only are these workers vulnerable to abuse, they undermine wages and working conditions for those in the above-ground economy and impose an unknown burden on our public services.
The province of Alberta, which led the way in promoting the temporary programs, also led the way in providing aid and assistance to these workers.
After embarrassing revelations by an investigator hired by the Alberta Federation of Labour, the provincial government funded outreach offices to provide support and assistance to those working under the program.
And last month, the province undertook a comprehensive review of the entire scheme under the direction of a group of members of the Legislature. This is the first government review in Canada of what is emerging as our new “immigration” system, which is really about labour force needs, not about immigration at all.
Here in Vancouver, the Mayor’s Working Group on Immigration, which I co-chair, has decided to explore the impact of the new programs on the city.
We want to meet workers who are in these programs and hear their stories.
Under the direction of the working group’s members, which include the leaders of the city’s leading immigrant settlement services, we will seek to assess how the new system is affecting our city.
The findings will be reported out next spring, along with recommendations to the Mayor for action.
But if Alberta is any guide, answers will be needed from Victoria and Ottawa if we are to be sure the new programs reflect Canadian commitments to human rights and equity.

  • from a column for Philippine News Today