Alberta reaches troubling milestone: more people now coming into province as temporary workers than traditional immigrants
EDMONTON - It's official. Alberta has become the first province in Canadian history to bring more people into its jurisdiction under the temporary foreign worker program than through Canada's mainline immigration system.
According to new figures from the federal department of Citizenship and Immigration, as of December 1, 2006, there were 22,392 temporary foreign workers in Alberta. That's more than double the 11,067 temporary workers who were in the province in 2003 and more than three times the 7,286 who were in the province in 1997.
Significantly, the 2006 figure for temporary foreign workers in Alberta is greater than the 20,717 immigrants granted permanent resident status in the province that year. This marks the first time that temporary workers have overtaken traditional immigrants.
Over the past five years, other provinces - most notably B.C. and Ontario - have also experienced dramatic jumps in the use of temporary foreign workers. But in those provinces, traditional immigrants still out number temporary workers.
"Once again, Alberta seems to be leading other provinces in the race to the bottom," says Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour. "If these temporary workers were on a track to becoming full citizens, it would be less of a concern - but they're not. The vast majority will be treated like Post-It Notes - to be used, discarded and sent back to the countries of origin."
As a result of the "exponential growth" of the temporary foreign workers program, McGowan says that "we're in the process of creating an underclass of workers who are much more vulnerable and open to exploitation than Canadian workers and who have little hope of ever becoming full citizens."
In response the dramatic jump in numbers, in early May the AFL established its own "Office of the Temporary Foreign Worker Advocate" to help temporary workers who are being ill-treated by employers or employment brokers.
In the seven weeks since opening the office, the AFL's Advocate has provided assistance to dozens of workers from India, Romania, Mexico, the Philippines and other countries. Complaints have ranged from exorbitant fees charged by brokers; to substandard housing; to employers refusing to pay overtime or reneging on promises related to wages and training.
"Unfortunately, we're afraid that what we've seen so far is just the tip of the iceberg," says McGowan. "For every one person who has come to our office for assistance, there are many others who are too afraid to speak out for fear of being sent back to their countries of origin."
McGowan says that Canadians should be demanding answers from their leaders about why the temporary foreign worker program was allowed to expand so rapidly with virtually no public debate and why none of the necessary safeguards have been put in place to deal with predictable abuses.
"What's happening with the temporary foreign worker program is an example of massive policy failure," says McGowan. "Our leaders have let Canadians down by not allowing them to have a say in a program that runs contrary to Canadian values. And they've let thousands of foreign workers down by leaving them open to exploitation and abuse."
For more information call:
Gil McGowan AFL President @ 780-218-9888
For complete figures, consult the new tables on temporary foreign workers and traditional immigration released this week by Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
For permanent immigrant data go here or to http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/resources/statistics/facts2006/permanent/18.asp
For temporary foreign worker data, go here or to http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/resources/statistics/facts2006/temporary/06.asp
The Alberta Federation of Labour is creating a new Temporary Foreign Worker Advocate Office to help protect the basic human and workplace rights of vulnerable foreign workers in the province.
"We've already heard too many stories of exploitation, neglect and unfair treatment," says Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan. "We have to act and help protect people who come in good faith to work in this province."
The AFL is contracting with labour lawyer Yessy Byl to create the Advocate's Office to assist foreign workers when they encounter unfair treatment.
"We asked the provincial government to act on this. They have done too little so far and the number of problems has just ballooned," McGowan says. "We felt it our duty to act to help protect these working people."
McGowan says the lack of clear rules and aggressive policing has opened the door for unscrupulous employers and employment brokers to take advantage of workers coming to Alberta from other countries.
"The problems are as simple as getting employers to actually pay what they promised, right up to complex visa issues," McGowan says. "Many of these people don't speak English well, they don't know the country and they can't really defend themselves."
Byl, an award-winning Edmonton lawyer with more than 20 years experience helping union and non-union workers, has already been assisting a number of foreign temporary workers on her own time - mostly notably a group of Romanian welders and machinists.
"I've already seen disturbing examples of employers and brokers behaving badly - and governments looking the other way," Byl says. "Canada has a well-deserved good reputation around the world. But that reputation will be put at risk if we continue to allow workers coming here from other parts of the world to be treated in these ways."
In her role as Advocate, Byl will help temporary foreign workers file employment standards complaints and complaints about workplace health and safety. She will also help foreign workers understand their rights, deal with immigration issues, and navigate the provincial and federal bureaucracies.
McGowan says the AFL has enough money to keep the Advocate Office running as a pilot project for at least six months and possibly a year. After that, he says it will be time to reassess.
"This is work that government should be doing - but we'll do it in hopes that people like Iris Evans and Monte Solberg will eventually come around," says McGowan. "Our goals are twofold. First to help address the immediate needs of temporary foreign workers who are being treated unfairly and, second, to gather enough evidence to convince the federal and provincial governments to step in and reform the system."
McGowan reiterated the labour movement's position that the real solution to Alberta's tight labour market lies with better training for domestic workers; reform to the mainline immigration system and measures to better control the pace of oil sands development.
"By allowing the Temporary Foreign Worker program to grow exponentially without any of the necessary safeguards, our governments are essentially creating an underclass of workers who don't have the same rights and protections in the workplace as Canadian workers," he says.
"We feel strongly that if these people are good enough to build our oil sands projects, take care of our children or serve our coffee, then they're good enough to stay as citizens. That's the Canadian way. Stringing people along for years in precarious situations thousands of miles away from their families - that's not the Canadian way."
For More Information contact:
Gil McGowan, President at 780.218-9888 (cell)
Changing human rights legislation to allow random drug testing is shortsighted, ill-conceived and potentially dangerous, says the Alberta Federation of Labour. The AFL was responding to reports of a report, leaked to media late last week, which recommends changing human rights legislation to allow employers to impose random drug and alcohol testing in their workplaces.
"The drive to force random drug and alcohol testing is occurring without reason, thought or consideration of other options," says AFL President Kerry Barrett. "Employers have become intoxicated by the idea of a quick fix solution. I fear that the casualty in this stampede will be the basic human rights of workers."
"Human rights are not something to be thrown aside just because they happen to be 'inconvenient' for employers," says Barrett. "Last time I checked, human rights laws were in place in part to prevent employers from running roughshod over their workers."
"This issue is not about intoxication on the job. That is a clear safety hazard and needs to be opposed. This issue is about what is the most effective way to prevent it - and random testing is not it."
Barrett points out there are two issues involved with random testing. First, Canada has a well-established "Duty to Accommodate" requirement for workers with disabilities.
Addiction to alcohol or drugs is considered a disability. This means employers need to assist workers with substance abuse problems to beat their addiction - rather than just fire them. "This is the best approach - it treats workers as full human beings, not just pieces of machinery to be disposed when needing repair."
Second, all workers have a right to a degree of privacy. Employers are only allowed to know information that is directly relevant to the workplace.
"What a person does on the weekend is none of the boss's business, and they need to keep their nose out of it."
This arrangement may frustrate some employers, but that is not a good enough reason to scrap longstanding rights, says Barrett.
"Employers have failed to make the case why the current regime needs to be changed," says Barrett. "Court decisions have established a reasonable balance between the rights of workers and the need to ensure a safe workplace. No one has demonstrated how random testing will make workplaces any safer."
Barrett points out that most experts believe that random testing is an ineffective method for addressing substance use. "It has too many flaws - from false positives, to evasion methods, to inability to prove intoxication."
The current legal structure gives employers the ability to manage their workplace, and to take action against unsafe work practices. This includes intoxication. "Employers don't need more powers to address substance use, they just need to start using the powers they already have."
"The U.S. has widespread pre-employment and random testing and it has not made their workplaces safer. Why are we going down a path that has proven ineffective?" Barrett asks.
For more information call:
Kerry Barrett, AFL President at 720-8945 (cell) or 483-3021 (wk)
Jason Foster, AFL Director of Policy Analysis at 483-3021
Random drug and alcohol testing misses the root problem with substance abuse, and will fail to produce safer workplaces, the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) says today. The AFL is responding to government suggestions that they will be forging ahead on random drug and alcohol testing.
"The drive toward more random testing is the result of impaired thinking," says AFL Acting President Kerry Barrett. "It is a knee-jerk reaction. It is not based in science or in any understanding of the issue."
A comprehensive study conducted by AADAC and recently released shows that drug and alcohol impairment is not a growing problem, and is restricted to very few workers in a handful of specific industries. It finds that only 5.6% of workers use alcohol during or in the hours before work on a regular basis, and only 1.7% use illicit drugs at or before work. And that the rate of drug and alcohol is linked to only a couple of industries, including construction and telecommunications.
The AADAC study decides against random testing. "AADAC does not recommend employee alcohol and drug testing except in cases where alcohol or other drug use constitutes a genuine risk to the workplace operations or public safety" says a Summary of the report.
"The issue is not whether a person uses alcohol or drugs on the weekend in their home - that is none of the employer's business. The question we need to stay focused on is how impairment affects the safety of workers. And random testing will not fix that problem" says Barrett.
"Randomly testing all workers to catch the very few with a substance use problem is like using amputation to deal with a hangnail. We need more finessed solutions that tackle the root problem" suggests Barrett.
She also reminds the government that random testing has been found to contravene Human Rights legislation. "Any attempt to legislate random testing will likely be struck down by the courts."
Barrett suggests Employee Assistance Programs, rehabilitation and counseling and attention to the warning signs that accompany substance abuse are better methods for reducing impairment in the workplace. "Solutions that get to the reasons why people abuse drugs and alcohol will be far more effective at fixing this safety problem."
"Employers are demanding more testing because it is a quick solution that lets them off the hook. We need solutions that make workplaces safer, and not just let employers feel like tough guys."
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For further information, contact:
Kerry Barrett, President at 780-483-3021 (wk) 780-720-8945 (cell)
Jason Foster, Director at 780-483-3021 (wk) 780-910-1137 (cell)
[Edmonton] The Alberta Federation of Labour today called upon Ralph Klein to apologize to Alberta's Chilean community for his comments endorsing the military coup and human rights abuses of dictator Pinochet.
"Most of the Chilean community in Alberta are here because they fled the bloody repression of the Pinochet regime," said AFL President Kerry Barrett. "Many of them lost family and friends to Pinochet's police state and its reign of terror - others were themselves victims of illegal imprisonment and torture."
"When a democratically-elected government leader endorses a dictator who used armed force to overthrow and murder another democratically-elected leader (President Salvador Allende), there is something deeply wrong," said Barrett.
"His remarks are deeply offensive, not just to the Chilean community in Alberta - but to all Albertans who uphold our democratic traditions and values," concluded Barrett. "I am not sure what kind of 'research' he did on the subject for his student essay, but he clearly didn't do much thinking about what the events in Chile actually meant to the men and women and children who had to live through them - nor of the fact that Pinochet has been indicted for human rights abuses."
For more information contact:
Kerry Barrett, AFL President at 483-3021 (wk) or 720-8945 (cell)
[Pigeon Lake] 'Building Bridges and Sharing Struggles II', the second workshop sponsored by the Alberta Federation of Labour to explore common ground and possible cooperative actions between the labour movement and the aboriginal community, will be held at the Pigeon Lake Recreational Centre on Friday, April 30, 2004.
"We are very optimistic that our continuing dialogue with the aboriginal community is going to create an effective and exciting new relationship between the aboriginal community and labour," said AFL Secretary Treasurer Kerry Barrett, who will open the workshop. "We know that there it will take time to build trust and cooperation between the two groups, but we feel that our many common interests in social and economic justice provide the basis for cooperative action."
Linda Bull from the Saddle Lake First Nation and Stan Knowlton from the Piegan Nation will address the workshop in the morning. Heather Smith from the United Nurses of Alberta and Mark Voyageur from the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union will provide a labour perspective.
In the afternoon, participants will engage in small group discussions about how labour and the aboriginal community can find common ground. The closing plenary will focus on developing future planning strategies.
The workshop was planned and coordinated by the Alberta Federation of Labour's Human Rights and International Solidarity Committee.
For more information contact:
Kerry Barrett, AFL Secretary Treasurer at 483-3021 (wk) or 720-8945 (cell)
Edmonton - The Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) is taking the opportunity of the 38th United Nations Day for the Elimination of Racism, which is Sunday, March 21, to renew calls to the provincial government for more action on tackling racism and hate crimes in Alberta.
"Police are reporting an increase in hate group activity in Alberta, and B'nai B'rith reports a large increase in anti-Semitic acts last year," says AFL Secretary-Treasurer Kerry Barrett. "We also continue to see discrimination against Muslims in the shadow of the Attack on Iraq. Clearly racism is alive and growing in Alberta."
"The provincial government puts very few resources into combating racism in its many forms," Barrett points out. "We are hoping that next week's budget contains new initiatives for both cracking down on hate crime and promoting education to end racism."
The AFL has long been committed to working to end racism. It regularly works with its union affiliates to reduce racial stereotypes and prejudice and to promote anti-racism work among workers. "The government should be embarking on similar strategies to bring people together."
Barrett also laments the rise in racist sentiment as fallout from the war on terror and the attack on Iraq a year ago. "It is more than a little ironic that the international day to eliminate racism coincides with the one year anniversary of the Iraq war - a war that can be seen as racist in its origins."
"To end racism, we also need to end the culture of violence and aggression against other peoples," Barrett concludes.
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For Further information contact:
Kerry Barrett, AFL Secretary Treasurer @ 780-483-3021 (wk)/ 780-720-8945 (cell)
Jason Foster, Director of Policy Analysis @ 780-483-3021 (wk)
The Alberta Federation of Labour is marking National Aboriginal Solidarity Day by strengthening its commitment to promoting aboriginal involvement in the labour movement.
"For years now, aboriginal people have faced discrimination in the workplace and in the broader community," says Barb Ames, one of two newly-elected aboriginal representatives on the AFL's Executive Council.
"Unfortunately, up until recently, the labour movement has also been guilty of not doing enough to open doors for aboriginal people. We've failed to give them a real seat at the table. The good news is that's all changing."
At the AFL's recent convention, delegates from dozens of different unions voted unanimously to create two new positions on the AFL's Executive Council to represent aboriginal workers. Aboriginal caucus meetings will also now be held at every major AFL event.
"This is the beginning of a new and on-going commitment on behalf of the Alberta labour movement," says Ames. "We will be reaching out to the aboriginal community in an effort to find out how unions and aboriginal people can work together to promote justice and provide opportunity for aboriginals in the workplace."
The work of building bridges between unions and the aboriginal community has already begun. In March, the AFL held a meeting with aboriginal leaders and workers on the Enoch reserve south of Edmonton. Similar meetings - aimed at identifying common concerns and possible areas for cooperation - will be held across the province over the next year.
As a concrete example of the labour movement's commitment to working with the aboriginal community, Ames says she and the AFL will help lobby provincial and federal governments to designate National Aboriginal Solidarity Day (June 21) as an official holiday.
"The goal of having an Aboriginal Solidarity Day was to celebrate the contributions of aboriginal people and promote a better understanding of aboriginal culture and concerns," says Ames. "But without designating it as an official holiday, the day won't get the attention it deserves. If the government is serious about encouraging non-Aboriginal people to think about aboriginal issues, then they should consider making June 21 a formal holiday - a day on which all Canadians can focus on the history, culture and problems faced by aboriginal people. "
For more information call:
Barb Ames, Aboriginal Vice President, AFL Executive Council (403) 246-7144
ENOCH - The Alberta Federation of Labour is marking March 21, the United Nations Day for the Elimination of Racism, with a special workshop aimed at building bridges between unions and the aboriginal community.
The workshop will be held today, Friday March 21, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Enoch Cree Nation Arena on the Enoch Reserve south of Edmonton.
"The unfortunate reality in Canada today is that aboriginal people are marginalized and excluded from full participation in our society, our economy - and even our unions," says AFL Secretary Treasurer Kerry Barrett.
"That's why our human rights committee has decided to organize this workshop. We want to build bridges and foster understanding - so that unions can develop a deeper appreciation for aboriginal issues and concerns; and so that the aboriginal community can see unions as partners in the fight for economic and social justice."
The workshop will be divided into two main sections. First, union and aboriginal representatives will explain the history, priorities and concerns of their respective communities. Then the discussion will turn to strategies for cooperation between unions and aboriginal groups.
At the end of the day, the goal is to identify a number of concrete steps that can be taken to increase aboriginal involvement and representation within the labour movement.
"The labour movement wants to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to the fight against racism and discrimination," says Barrett. "Ultimately, we would like to see a Canadian society that is completely free of discrimination - in which all people have equal opportunities and representation regardless of the colour of their skin. But the first step is to take action within our own organizations."
Barrett says efforts to build bridges between different communities are particularly important in light of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
"The Americans are sending the message that aggression is the answer to conflict - and that harmonious relations can be enforced by an iron fist. We, on the other hand, think that the best way to reduce tensions between groups is to build bridges and foster understanding. That's what this workshop is all about."
For more information call:
Kerry Barrett, AFL Secretary Treasurer @ 780-720-8945 (cell)
Gil McGowan, AFL Communications @ 780-483-3021 (wk)
EDMONTON - There is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to guaranteeing real equality for women in the workplace and in their communities, says Kerry Barrett, Secretary Treasurer of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"On the eve of International Women's Day, we have much to celebrate - but here in Alberta and across the country we still haven't reached the point where we can say that all barriers to equality have been dismantled."
As proof that the battle for more equitable treatment has yet to be won, Barrett points to information from Statistics Canada showing that the "gender wage gap" in Alberta is wider than anywhere else in Canada.
"On average, working women in Canada earn about 81 cents for every dollar earned by men. But here in Alberta, women earn only about 76 cents for each dollar earned by their male counterparts. That's the widest gap in the country - and it's a clear sign that more needs to be done to advance the interests of women in the workplace."
The statistics also show that outside of a few sectors like health care and education - where unions have won better deals for their members - working women are still much less likely to have access to pensions or other benefits than men.
At the same time, Barrett says our governments at both the federal and provincial level have failed to give more than lip service to many of the issues that matter most to women - like affordable child care, low-income housing, assistance for single mothers and funding for women's shelters.
"You don't want to be young, poor and a mother in Alberta," says Barrett. "Raising a young family has never been easy. But our governments have made it much more difficult than it has to be - especially in a wealthy province like ours."
Barrett also points to a report released yesterday by the United Nations showing that Canada has failed to live up to its obligations in areas such as the reduction of child poverty and promoting the number of women in elected positions.
"Here in Alberta, one in five of our children live in poverty - and only 16 of 73 of our MLAs are women. We think there is a direct link between these two figures. Without more women in positions of authority, we will continue to have governments that ignore the concerns of women and families."
Barrett says that the labour movement has and will continue to play a central role in improving conditions for women.
"In most of the sectors of the economy where women have pulled even to men in terms of wages, benefits and responsibility there is one common denominator - and that's the presence of unions," she says. "Our challenge now is to organize more women and use our collective strength to level the playing field more broadly."
For more information call:
Kerry Barrett, AFL Secretary Treasurer at 780-483-3021 or 1-800-661-3995
or 780-720-8945 (cell)