Five years of dealing with temporary foreign workers affected Yessy Byl in a way she did not expect. There were the stories, from the more than 1,000 people she spoke with in her job as a labour advocate, of neglect and mistreatment – overtime not paid, commitments not honoured, hefty "hiring fees" deducted from weekly cheques. And yet many of them wouldn't make a formal complaint for fear they'd be fired just for speaking out.
It left her deflated and disillusioned. "My faith in this country has been badly shaken," she says. "I have to remind myself: There are some good employers."
For Ms. Byl, and many other critics, Canada's growing numbers of temporary foreign workers have raised important questions about the kind of country we are becoming, and how a nation that has long welcomed immigrants is establishing a burgeoning second class of labour, devoid of many of the rights to democratic participation and workplace choice other Canadians enjoy.
As Canadian employers struggle to address a burgeoning labour shortage, temporary foreign workers have become a pillar of the economy – there are now more than 300,000 here, triple the number a decade ago. Visiting workers once associated with harvest time in Canada's orchards and tobacco fields now turn up everywhere from fast-food chains and abattoirs to the Alberta oil sands.
Anticipating another surge in demand, the Harper government has, in the past few weeks, formalized a series of changes to speed up the program. Now able to bring in people with just 10 days notice and to pay them 15-per-cent less than a Canadian would earn, employers have responded with joy. They still must prove they can't fill a job any other way, but others see deeper significance in the trend and are holding their breath.
Howard Ramos, who studies social justice and equity at Dalhousie University, says he is "really worried that Canada as a country is beginning to move away from immigration."
If the commitment to bringing in people who are not bound to a particular job and have more rights really is being eroded, he says, the change in direction is unprecedented and will have an impact that is "bad for the long-term future of Canadian nation-building."
Ken Lewenza, national president of the CAW, agrees. He says Ottawa's new rules are "an assault not just on foreign workers. They are an assault on Canada and what we stand for."
"There's got to be a larger conversation," he says, "about whether it is right of Canada and employers to exploit workers." One CAW local discovered that 30 Thai and Mexican fish-plant workers were being housed in just two three-bedroom homes in Wheatley, Ont. But they were too frightened to speak out, worried they'd lose the ability to work in Canada.
Canada needs people
There is little question that Canada needs people. Virtually every sector of the economy is forecasting shortages: The information, communications and technology industry needs 106,000 people in the next five years. Mining needs 112,000 by 2021. Construction needs 319,000 by 2020. Alberta, with a population of 3.8 million, forecasts a need for 607,000 new workers in the next decade, and expects to fall 114,000 short.
Many experts argue that without temporary foreign workers the predicament would be even worse – that visitors enable economic growth. They already fill many of the gaps even though they are allowed to work for no more than four years, and are severely restricted in other jobs they can take if fired.
In 2008, at the height of the last boom, 190,768 such workers entered Canada. Last year, despite a one-fifth rise in national unemployment rates, the number of foreign entries did not plunge – in fact, it rose by precisely one person, to 190,769.
Experiences with temporary employees in Europe and the United States show that they can bring fundamental change, positive and negative. Germany's famed "guest workers" were instrumental in making the country an industrial powerhouse. Yet elsewhere in Europe, their presence has brought problems. In France, for example, race riots of the past decade were blamed in part on the ghettoization of overseas workers whose secondary legal and societal status fomented anger. In the U.S., too, the use of foreign workers has stoked a national debate over how to integrate needed workers into society.
Supporters of Canada's recent changes contend the changes actually protect workers. To achieve a quick decision on bringing in outsiders, a company must agree to random audits to ensure they are following the rules. If they fail, and don't correct the problem, they can be banned from bringing in more workers for two years.
"The consequences are very significant" – and being blacklisted could "make you lose a competitive advantage," says Loretta Bouwmeester, a Calgary employment and labour lawyer.
Not only are companies now conducting internal audits to make doubly sure they are following the rules, she adds, it's so expensive to find people and get them here (employers often must cover travel costs) that "there's still an incentive to look in Canada first."
Enforcement has been lax
But critics say Ottawa and the provinces have been so lax in enforcing current rules that employers no longer fear being caught for underpaying workers, charging them illegal fees or doing an insufficient job of canvassing for Canadian labour.
In an e-mail response, a representative for Human Resources and Skills Development Canada declined to confirm that more money will be spent on auditing, but did say that resources within the program will be shifted "to focus on post-application compliance."
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, says there is no question the visitors are cost-effective for those who hire them. In fact, he argues, "they're putting downward pressure on wages when all the economic indicators suggest that wages should be going up."
Anecdotal evidence, from small contractors, suggests that's already happening, as well-paid Alberta crews are having trouble competing.
But for now, at least, paycheques are still getting fatter: adjusting for inflation, wages in Alberta have risen 12 per cent since 2005, according to figures provided by ATB. Across Canada, they are up 7.5 per cent.
And in Alberta, some believe any downward pressure could actually be helpful.
"I don't think it will distort the labour market – and at very worst, the wages in oil-and- gas extraction could handle coming down a notch or two," said Todd Hirsch, senior economist for Edmonton-based ATB Financial.
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