Filipino workers’ class action against Denny’s highlights uncertainties of temporary foreign workers’ status

The class action suit filed Monday by 50 Filipino temporary foreign workers against Denny’s Restaurants has shone a harsh light on a potentially serious problem for city governments.

(The allegations in the suit remain unproved and are categorically denied by Denny’s.)

Workers on temporary permits, which require them to return home at the end of their contract, are rapidly outstripping new immigrants as participants in Canada’s work force.

Lawyers for the complainants in the $10 million action say the workers were recruited in the Philippines after paying a $6,000 recruiter’s fee and then deployed across the province. They now say they have been denied wages, overtime and travel charges they are entitled to under their contracts.

Once a Filipino worker has made the long journey to BC and is pouring coffee or flipping burgers, his or her existence is entirely dependent on their employer under the terms of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Their visa does not make them an immigrant. They cannot work for someone if they quit their job or are fired. They are supposed to be flown home at their employer’s expense when the work ends.

Reality tells a different story. Winnipeg citizens were outraged in the days before Christmas by the heart-rending story of the “Three Amigos,” three Filipino men who remained in Canada and worked illegally after their job with an Alberta gas station ended abruptly. Faced with deportation, they begged to stay so they could find work to support their families.

Such workers often join the underground economy, putting an unknown pressure on housing stock and city services. Vulnerable to deportation, they may work in unsafe conditions, with inadequate training and low wages.

Alberta has established special offices to provide support to foreign workers in that province. In BC, all support must come from immigrant settlement services which are not only not funded for the work but are facing a massive restructuring and reduction of contract funding.

What is the impact of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program on Vancouver, its immigration settlement services and on the workers themselves? The Mayor’s Working Group on Immigration has decided to investigate for itself and city staff are preparing a competitive bid process to find suitable contractors to shine a light on this poorly-understood issue.