Union leaders questioning the entry of foreign workers into Canada are potentially inciting public opinion against newcomers, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said yesterday.
The statements angered Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan who accused Ottawa of setting up foreign workers to be exploited.
Following a speech to a small audience at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, Kenney said McGowan's criticism of the use of non-Canadian workers and the need for them "was playing on some old and really unfortunate sentiments.
"I wish this individual was a little more reasonable and restrained ... the union leadership needs to be a little more responsible."
AFL officials have argued the use of foreign workers undercuts and drives down wages.
Kenney said they're doing work Canadians are unwilling to perform and said his government, despite the recession and rising unemployment, will maintain its practise of encouraging immigration and foreign labour.
"We've actually made the politically difficult decision to maintain historically high levels of immigration ... the worst thing we could do is starve employers who are growing during these economically difficult times," said Kenney.
McGowan accused Kenney's ministry of "washing its hands" of temporary foreign workers once they arrive and who are routinely abused by their employers.
"We're the ones who set up an advocacy office to help workers who are exploited -- we're the ones picking up the pieces," said McGowan.
"I find it galling Kenney's trying to wrap himself in the cloak of virtue."
Kenney said his government is stepping up its monitoring of foreign workers' treatment while making it easier for the newcomers to become permanent residents and citizens.
But McGowan said of a rapidly-growing number of the workers, only 3% of them are eligible for permanent residency.
"It creates an underclass of workers," he said.
Edmonton Sun, Wed Apr 15 2009
Byline: Bill Kaufmann
Alberta's temporary foreign worker program has no oversight and is mired in so much bureaucracy that employers are allowed to treat hopeful immigrants like indentured labour.
That's what a federal committee travelling Canada to examine immigration issues heard in Edmonton yesterday, during a lengthy meeting in which several interest groups blasted the provincial and federal governments.
"Alberta's temporary foreign worker program is inherently exploitive and treats people as disposable. I can assure you Canada's reputation in foreign countries has suffered a great deal," Yessy Byl told the committee of MPs.
Byl is a TFW advocate with the Alberta Federation of Labour, and her comments were echoed by other groups, including the Mennonite Centre for Newcomers and Ukrainian Canadian Social Services.
All agreed that TFW programs would not be as burdened if the federal immigration department wasn't so maddeningly inefficient.
"Of the hundreds of workers I've dealt with in the last two years, almost all have come here not to work but to emigrate. They are using the TFW program because our immigration system is so dysfunctional," Byl said.
"I don't think we have a clue as to how great this problem is. There is currently no system by which we can legitimize the workers that we so desperately need," she said.
"In the meantime, brokers and employers bringing these workers here are running around unchecked, illegally charging recruitment fees, housing workers in homes with up to 14 other people and making huge sums of money renting out houses.
"People are being lured here with the promise of $12 an hour jobs only to arrive and find themselves on the wrong side of the poverty line."
Other speakers said Canadian embassies in eastern Europe make it notoriously difficult for people to enter Canada.
HARD TO EMIGRATE
"On the one hand we have this great campaign encouraging foreigners to emigrate to Canada, yet on the other hand we have an immigration system that makes that increasingly difficult," said Bill Diachuk of the Ukrainian group.
Committee chair and Conservative MP Doyle Norman appeared to sincerely listen to the concerns, while other committee members from all federal parties asked presenters to suggest solutions to the problem.
Those included amnesty for illegal immigrants with established jobs and establishment of watchdog groups to protect the rights of foreign workers.
Edmonton Sun, Wed Apr 2 2008
Byline: Brookes Merritt
In November 2007, the AFL Temporary Foreign Worker Advocate released "Alberta's Disposable Workforce" which examined the working and living conditions of temporary foreign workers in Alberta, documenting serious exploitation and abuse at the hands of employers and the government. In the months since, a lot has changed in Alberta, but much has stayed the same. The exploitation of foreign workers continues, even though the context has shifted significantly. With the boom turned to bust, it is important to update Albertans on the state of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP).
March 2009: Rights for farm workers; Health and safety postcard campaign; Project 2012 Booklet; Save the Wheat Board
Rights for Farm Workers!
- The AFL is joining with UFCW Canada in a campaign to include farm workers in Alberta's Occupational Health and Safety Act. The campaign is a result of a recent fatality inquiry into the death of Kevan Chandler on a farm near Black Diamand. The Judge recommended that one of the best ways to prevent future fatalities is to include farm workers in OH&S legislation. Farming has changed. It's time the laws changed with it! Find out what you can do to help farm workers ...
- The economy has hit the skids, but now is not the time for a return to the days of cutbacks, privatization and royalty rollbacks. There is another way to tackle the economic downturn. Public Interest Alberta's 3rd Annual Advocacy Conference is looking at how we can broaden the scope of public solutions to keep Alberta working, and make us greener at the same time. "Beyond Band-Aids and Bailouts: Public Solutions in Critical Times" runs April 3 - 5 in Edmonton. Speakers include Judy Rebick, Elaine Bernard and Dr. Robert Woollard. Register for the Conference ...
- In 2007, 154 workers were killed at work. Last year another 166 lost their lives because of their jobs. There is no better reason than that for changing Alberta's safety laws. The AFL's Health and Safety Committee has launched a postcard campaign aimed at making Joint H&S Committees mandatory in all workplaces. Alberta is the only province to have voluntary joint committees. And it is proven that joint committees save lives. Join the campaign! Bundles of the postcards are available at the AFL office. Call (780-483-3021) to request some and get your members and neighbours to sign them. See a sample of the postcard ...
Spirit of Labour
- Sometimes to get our inspiration, we need to look at our past. The miners of the Crowsnest Pass can teach us much about courage, solidarity and organizing for victory. The story of the working families of the Crownest Pass has been captured in a moving booklet recently released by Project 2012, the celebration of the AFL's Centennial being organized by the AFL and the Alberta Labour History Institute (ALHI). This is the first of a series of five booklets popularizing key moments in Alberta's labour history, to be released each year leading up to 2012. Read "Spirit of the Crowsnest" ...
Save the Wheat Board!!
- Since their election, the Harper Conservatives have had an aggressive agenda to undermine and break up the Canada Wheat Board. At every available opportunity they have attacked the single-desk monopoly of the Board and promoted the rump group of farmers who want to sell their grain on the open market. The Conservatives have run fraudulent votes and even contravened government law (according to the courts) in their effort to chip away at one of the most effective mechanisms for farmers. The Board has been proven time and time again to return high prices to farmers for their grain - higher than they could get on their own.
- The National Farmers Union and supporters of the Wheat Board are locked in a battle for the very existence of the Wheat Board. And they need your help! Whether you live in a rural community or in a big city, you need to add your voice to those trying to save the Wheat Board. Take action now!
Economics for EveryoneJoin Jim Stanford, Chief Economist for the CAW, to talk about the state of the economy and what it means for workers. Stanford will be discussing his latest book "Economics for Everyone" and looking at the state of the economy from a worker perspective.
Co-sponsored by Parkland Institute
Wednesday April 22
Thursday April 23
Chateau Lacombe Crowne Plaza
Did you know ...
Temporary Foreign Workers in Alberta
Permanent Immigrants Arriving in Alberta
When the Economic Party is Over...
- Someone has to clean up the mess. The latest Labour Economic Monitor, the AFL's digest of economic statistics and analysis, is out - and this time looks at the quickly changing economy. Find out what is really happening, what is causing the rapid flux and how you and your family might be affected. Read Labour Economic Monitor ...
Hands off Our Assets!
- On January 20, Edmonton City Council will consider privatizing the Gold Bar Waste Treatment Plan by handing it over to EPCOR at a fraction of its value. EPCOR plans on using the asset to help it win bids to operate privatized utilities in other cities in North America. Edmontonians would lose public control of this valuable public asset and public accountability would be lost. Edmontonians need to make their voice heard in the next few days.
The Making of Our Movement
- As we build toward the AFL's Centennial in 2012, we want to celebrate our past victories and achievements. Last year we launched Project 2012 to create popular material to celebrate labour history in Alberta. The latest in our series of posters has just been released. It is the first poster in the "Making of Our Movement" series, and it honours the courage and struggle of the workers in the 1986 Gainers Strike. A powerful image anchors the poster, which is available free of charge from the AFL office. Framed copies are also being sold for $150. See sample of the poster ...
Fed Up With Labour Laws? Change 'Em!
- The winter 2009 issue of Union magazine came out recently, offering a look at the state of Alberta's labour laws and what we can do about them. Union is the AFL's seasonal publication of insight and analysis. The issue also examines the growing use of Temporary Foreign Workers, the possibility of "decent work", and takes a look back at a groundbreaking coal miners's strike in 1906. And remember, subscriptions are FREE! Read Union Magazine ...
- Workplaces are becoming more diverse, which presents both challenges and opportunities for workers. Three of the AFL's Standing Committees are collaborating to organize a conference that is looking at diversity in the workplace. The conference will address racism, aboriginal issues, Temporary Foreign Workers, and pride and solidarity. The Conference runs February 27 & 28 at the Crowne Plaza Chateau Lacombe in Edmonton.
Stop the Bloodshed in the Middle East
With over 700 Palestinians and 13 Israelis killed and the death toll mounting daily as the Gaza offensive escalates, citizens around the world are urgently demanding action to end the violence and protect civilians.
One group has launched an online petition calling for robust international action to achieve an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and take further crucial steps toward a fair and lasting peace in the Middle East.
Join the more than 400,000 people worldwide who have signed the petition and are calling for an end to the bloodshed. Sign the petition ...
The Folly of Free Trade Agreements
The Parkland Institute is hosting a speaking event with Professor Jane Kelsey, one of New Zealand's best-known critical commentators on issues of globalisation, neo-liberalism and so-called liberalized trade. Dr. Kelsey will be talking about how working people around the world suffer the worst under free trade agreements, and how such deals embed the corporate principles of neo-liberalism.
Tuesday February 3
7:30 pm - 9:30 pm
University of Alberta Campus (ETLC 1-003)
Did you know ...
Temporary Foreign Workers in Alberta
In December 2007, there were 37,257 TFWs in Alberta, which would make up Alberta's 10th largest city.
There were 73,000 unemployed Albertans in the same month.
Unskilled workers now make up 1 in 4 TFWs in Alberta.
60% of food industry employers with TFWs were found by the Alberta government to be breaching the Employment Standards Code in some significant way.
Unions in B.C. and Alberta are demanding changes be made to the temporary foreign worker (TFW) program to allow for permanent residency.
However, this pathway to citizenship has already been rejected by the federal government, despite a report recommending otherwise.
"We believe there should be something like the Canadian Experience Class that applies to the construction industry," said Wayne Peppard, executive director of the British Columbia and Yukon Territory Building and Construction Trades Council (BCYT-BCTC).
"If you are going to invite temporary foreign workers to come to work, they must be able to move into the industry they have experience in. They should be able to come and have an access portal to become fully landed."
The House of Commons Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration recently released a report on the temporary foreign worker program, after traveling across the country to gather information The report focuses on specific issues including the transition from temporary to permanent resident and recommends that TFWs have the chance to gain residency.
"The committee believes that all temporary foreign workers in the current programs should have the opportunity to apply for permanent residency after meeting certain criteria, an opportunity not currently universally available to them," said the report.
"The committee recognizes that many workers and employers desire their employment arrangement to be permanent and we feel that permanent migration is in Canada's best interests."
The Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) recently released a report of its own recommending that TFWs be allowed to stay. The report by the AFL's temporary foreign worker advocate said Alberta's Immigrant Nominee Program, the only avenue available to most foreign workers for permanent residence, is too restrictive and far too small to be effective.
"Only four per cent of foreign workers are accepted into the program, even though the bulk of foreign workers come with the expectation and hope of permanent settlement, which was deliberately fostered by brokers and the government," it said.
In contrast, the committee report was impressed with the way Saskatchewan and Manitoba use the TFW program to meet long-term labour market demand.
"Their strategic approach and collaboration between business, government, and community sectors is a good news story that might be of interest to other jurisdictions," it states. "
All measures should be taken to facilitate the transition from temporary worker to permanent resident through the provincial nominee avenue."
In response to the union demands, Conservative committee members submitted a minority report that rejects the recommendation.
"We oppose any move to alter the design of the temporary foreign worker to make it a permanent program in all but name," said Rick Dykstra, parliamentary secretary to the minister of citizenship and immigration. "That would undermine the integrity of the federal skilled worker program and, thus, our immigration system."
The committee also recommended that immediate family members be allowed to get an open work permit and a fee be collected from employers for emergency support of the unemployed.
However, Dykstra said the program shouldn't allow family members into the labour market without a separate Labour Market Opinion.
"In rural communities, an influx of individuals with open work permits would drastically distort the local labour market, displacing local youth and Canadian visible minorities from entry level employment positions, essentially pricing them out of the local labour market," he said.
Other committee recommendations include: discontinuing employer specific work permits; penalties against employers who abuse workers and fail to comply with contractual obligations; providing information about unscrupulous recruiters and report cases of abuse to law enforcement agencies; and monitoring of working and living conditions.
"The standing committee report is the first acknowledgement by federal politicians about the radical impact of the guest worker program on Canadian society and economy," said Peppard.
"Now it's up to the government and minister Kenney to stop the abuse and exploitation of temporary foreign workers."
Journal of Commerce, Mon Jun 1 2009
Byline: Richard Gilbert
Last November, The Alberta Federation of Labour released a report exposing the widespread abuse of foreign workers.
- job promised being radically different or disappearing upon arrival
- lower wages than promised
- demands to perform inappropriate personal services
- deportation and imprisonment threats
The majority of temporary workers are labourers and nannies. Visas for truck drivers, factory workers, cleaners and food services have risen significantly during the past two years. Yet, over the last few years, the plight of exotic dancers has been a focus in the House of Commons.
Until December 2004, Canada's exotic dancer visa program fast-tracked foreign women through the immigration process to fill a supposed stripper shortage.
This temporary working visa has since been linked to organized crime and sex trafficking.
Canadian immigration officers responded by dramatically cutting the visas granted to foreign exotic dancers. During the last sitting of Parliament, Bill C-17 (formerly known as Bill C-57) was brought forward to solidify the legal authority of immigration officers to deny working visas to foreign nationals deemed at risk for exploitation and abuse.
Already twice introduced in Parliament, the substance of the bill will likely receive a new life after the October 14 federal election.
Many sex worker and immigrant advocacy groups are not convinced the provisions of Bill C-17 can address exploitation.
"[O]nly a handful of work permits have been issued to exotic dancers in recent years. Parliamentary time would be better used to address the broader problem of the exploitation of non-citizens in Canada," states Janet Dench, executive director of Canadian Council for Refugees.
"Trafficking thrives in conditions where there are, one, barriers to workers' migration, and two, poor working conditions," says Dr. Leslie Ann Jeffrey of the University of New Brunswick. "This bill both increases the barriers and fails to address exploitative work conditions and becomes part of the problem rather than part of the solution."
Canada: a destination country for sex trafficking
- approximately 800 persons are trafficked to Canada each year
- an additional 1,500 to 2,000 are trafficked through Canada to the U.S.
- 80% of trafficked persons are women and girls; up to half are minors
- victims are primarily trafficked from Asia, and Eastern Europe, but also Africa and Latin America
Annie Temple of NakedTruth.ca told the Canadian Press, "If the Conservative government is truly concerned about exploitation of exotic dancers, then they should focus on ensuring health and safety standards exist in strip clubs."
STAR Report: Exotic Dancing in Ontario
The Sex Trade Advocacy and Research (STAR) report, Exotic Dancing in Ontario: Health and Safety, shows exotic dancers are denied the normal protections offered to workers outside of the sex industry.
One explanation is the majority of dancers work freelance, paying club owners for working space. Thus, they are not covered by federal and provincial labour legislation and do not benefit from unionization.
Dancers are frequently penalized through club expulsion, arrest and criminal charges if they take action against assault and harassment. This behaviour is treated as an expected "occupational hazard" explains the report, and is extremely high due to dancers' close proximity to intoxicated clients and the belief they are "sexually available."
The report recommends:
- clarification in legislation and by-laws to include exotic dancers and strip clubs
- improved health and safety standards in strip clubs
- police protection from harassment and assault
- education of police and government officials regarding the treatment of exotic dancers and their work conditions
- education of exotic dancers on their rights and available support services, available in many languages
- Human Resources and Social Development Canada and Immigration Canada must assure foreign dancers are not brought into Canada under false pretences and employers must meet public policy requirements
Section 15.ca, Wed Oct 8 2008
Byline: Jenna Owsianik
The stereotype is a young woman forced to work in a brothel, strip club or massage parlour.
Reality cuts across all walks of life.
Nannies. Construction workers. Seasonal farmers.
"Nobody knows the language of human trafficking," says Sherilyn Trompetter, assistant executive director of Changing Together, an Edmonton-based NGO that leads the Alberta Coalition Against Human Trafficking.
Many exploited foreign workers are treated simply as employees in poor working conditions, not as human trafficking victims, Trompetter says, pointing to the case of 30 Polish welders who arrived in Alberta in 2005 and 2006 under false pretences and were paid less than half their expected wages.
"Human trafficking in general in Canada needs to be redefined and it needs to be stated that we've already seen these patterns; these patterns have always existed," she says. "We're just not calling it what it is."
In a four-part series running across the country this week, Sun Media looks at Canada's hidden trade in people; at the failure of this country to live up to its international obligations on human trafficking, to prosecute human traffickers and meaningfully help victims.
Human trafficking is defined under Canadian law as "the recruitment, transportation or harbouring of persons for the purpose of exploitation," the RCMP writes on its website.
Trafficking can be a family member offering up a child to work in Canada as a domestic servant.
It can be a live-in caregiver who is brought into the country and told she will be paid with a roof over her head, not understanding she is also entitled to a wage.
And sometimes, the exploitation is based on false promises, unfulfilled visas and what seem to be a lack of options: A group of trades people who arrive in Canada only to be shuffled to another employer and paid a fraction of what was agreed upon.
"It's often degrees of exploitation," Canadian Council for Refugees executive director Janet Dench says in Montreal. "The more vulnerable people are, the more easy it is to exploit them."
The Alberta Federation of Labour moved to address the living and working conditions of temporary foreign workers in 2006 when, for the first time ever, Alberta had more of these workers in the booming province than permanent immigrants.
At the time, there were nearly 22,400 temporary foreign workers in Alberta -- doubled from 2003 and tripled from 1997.
The following year, AFL launched the Temporary Foreign Worker Advocate with Edmonton lawyer Yessy Byl at the helm.
By the time of her six-month report, Byl had heard from more than 1,400 people and opened case files for 123 temporary foreign workers "in need of assistance."
"An analysis of the 123 files handled by the Advocate reveals a troubling picture of how Alberta is treating this group of workers," the report said.
"Quite frankly, we are exploiting their vulnerability and taking advantage of their precarious position." The problems can start in a victim's home country, where employment agencies have been known to charge anywhere from $1,000 to $15,000 to process Canadian job applications, says Anette Sikka, who spent several years trying to combat human trafficking in Kosovo before returning to Canada where she is researching human trafficking at the University of Ottawa.
In some cases, agencies are charging workers for skills and language training in their home country and then charging a "settlement" fee upon arrival in Canada -- calling it such gets them around provincial provisions that make it illegal to charge for finding employment, Sikka says.
DEBT TO PAY
Like many trafficking victims who are smuggled into this country, these victims are, too, told they have a debt to pay off. We found you a job, now you owe us some money.
And there is nobody telling them otherwise.
"There's nobody to check up on them," Sikka says.
With no official agreement obligating the federal government to tell the provinces who, when and how many people are arriving as temporary foreign workers or live-in caregivers, employment standards branches across the country, no matter how good their intentions, don't have the necessary information to check up on workers, Sikka says.
"There's no mandatory orientation done," she says. "It's absolutely, 100% necessary. I think it's the primary thing we can do to stop the types of trafficking that are going on in Western Canada particularly." Debt bondage aside, workers can fall into a "vicious cycle" of exploitation simply by not being informed of their rights upon arrival, Sikka says.
Something as simple as informing workers about the procedure of changing employers would be helpful for foreign workers who are granted visas to work at one place, but upon arrival in Canada, are shuffled over to different employers.
By the time they figure out they are working illegally, experts say, these workers may be hesitant to speak out about an exploitive situation for fear of deportation.
"They can change employers if they want, but they're just not told," Sikka says. "Nobody informs them they have to go through that procedure."
"Families who are sending people over, they'll do just about anything: Mortgage homes, take out loans, really just put all their eggs in one basket. So when the person gets here and if the job isn't what they had expected or they're not making the money they had expected or, in some cases, there's actually no job, they've been charged all this money and they end up working illegally," Sikka says. "And then they're stuck in this vicious cycle where they may not be working in accordance to their visa, but they're in such high debt bondage, there's just nothing they can do."
At the International Bureau for Children's Rights in Montreal, program manager Catherine Gauvreau recounts a story that began to unravel a few years ago about a trafficked teenaged girl.
Having been separated from her parents during a 1990s conflict in her home country and subsequently separated from her siblings, the girl arrived in Canada with a woman posing as her aunt.
"The child is obviously in a desperate situation in this case. She (the 'aunt') brings the child here, the child goes through the process, is accepted under false identity."
The victim ended up in a home where she "basically does domestic servitude, she takes care of the family, of the children," all the while under psychological control and physical abuse from the family, Gauvreau says.
"She goes into the school system. No one believes her because this is not something that supposedly happens in Canada."
That child, who is now an adult, became a successful refugee claimant after a friend's mother finally found credence in her allegations.
"It's important to recognize that some of the situations are domestic ones, where you have women and men, children even, who are kind of house servants and they're kept in the house and not able to get out," Dench says with this message for the government: "Try to make sure that people have as many opportunities as possible to assert their rights."
Loly Rico, co-director of the FCJ Refugee Centre in Toronto and president of Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, has seen cases of Canadians returning to their home countries to recruit people for work and bring them back to Canada. But instead of paying them money, they pay the workers with food and shelter.
"But they don't let you go out," Rico says.
Of the three trafficked women who have walked into Rico's office this year, two were forced into the sex trade; one was in forced domestic, abusive labour, she says.
"In most of the cases, they have been brought by relatives or friends," she says, adding most victims she has seen over the years come from the Caribbean and Latin America.
Sikka points out domestic and agricultural workers are often excluded from Employment Standards legislation.
"A lot of people want to be involved in trafficking. It's a big, sexy, glamorous, organized crime issue. Whether that's really the case is another story. And I don't think it is," Sikka says. "People don't always want to hear that. It's just not newsworthy, I guess. Because it's been happening for so long and people have ignored it for so long, now that we call it trafficking, they're still ignoring it."
"It just becomes everybody's responsibility to, in a sense, look out for your neighbour," says Robin Pike, executive director of the B.C. Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons. "If people are suspicious that the live-in caregiver next door has had her passport taken and has never been paid, it really is the eyes of the public."
"The one thing that I think that we should do faster than immediately is the education component," Manitoba MP Joy Smith says. "We should make sure that on airplanes people are warned about human trafficking. We should make sure that there's a 1-800 number if somebody's in trouble, with the resources behind it to make sure that person can be rescued."
"There's no one that wishes to be in bondage. There's no one that wishes to be confined. And there's no one that wishes to be used," she says, adding more resources need to be poured into educating police about identifying victims.
South of Ontario, where a state-wide task force funded by the U.S. government is set up to combat human trafficking, Amy Fleischauer says of the dozens of victims she has come across over the last year and a half, she can't paint just one picture of their situations.
There have been sex workers, restaurant workers, farm workers, domestic workers, says the trafficking victim services co-ordinator for the International Institute of Buffalo.
"They've been all ages. We've served some minors, but the large majority of our clients have been older, in their 30s and 40s," she says. "There really has been no trend or no one face of trafficking or one characteristic."
Most don't identify themselves as trafficking victims and are referred to Fleischauer by other organizations.
By the time they end up on her doorstep, they want to learn English; they want to know when they can work next; they want employment skills.
"We try to meet those needs and establish some trust and explain their rights and even what their rights are in this country if they're undocumented," she says.
"Those have been some really tough conversations -- that even if you are not in this country legally, you can't be beaten."
Winnipeg Sun, Tues Sept 30 2008
Byline: Tamara Cherry
Unite to prevent exploitation, improve conditions for Canada's rising number of temporary workers
Last fall, in a dingy boardroom in Ottawa, a group of union leaders sat uncomfortably with migrant worker advocates to discuss Canada's growing use of temporary foreign workers to fill labour shortages.
Union reps in construction trades, food and service industries raised concerns over migrants' substandard credentials and displacement of union jobs, while advocates complained about Canada's protected labour market and employers who exploit foreign workers.
"There was definitely discomfort and tension in the room," recalled Karl Flecker, a national director of the Canadian Labour Congress, who was at the meeting. "It was a frank dialogue, but people were cautious of one another."
Despite their differences, they formed an alliance and have been meeting regularly to discuss labour rights, strategize political lobbying, share information on corporate abusers and unscrupulous recruiters and build bridges with migrant-sending countries - a counterforce, they say, against the globalization of cheap labour.
Increasingly, the union movement has been turning its attention to the plight of migrant labourers and temporary foreign workers as their numbers increase and, in many cases, their poor working conditions come to light.
While western countries often use immigration to address labour shortages and maintain population growth, more and more they're relying on temporary guest workers.
In Canada the number of foreign temporary workers has risen from 122,848 to 165,198 in the last two years, while the number of landed immigrants dropped from 262,240 to 236,758, in the same period.
"I don't believe that if these workers were given the same rights and wages as Canadian workers, our employers would be as interested in bringing them in," said labour studies professor Charlotte Yates of McMaster University.
"It is a cheap labour policy," she added. "There is a danger that if we increase the number of migrant workers, we increase the number of vulnerable workers. It is going to affect Canada's overall labour market, pushing down wages."
Although Canada has just launched the Canadian Experience Class to allow foreign workers and international students on temporary permits to apply for permanent status from within Canada, those in low-paying and unskilled jobs - often the most vulnerable due to their lack of English and education - are still excluded.
With federal and provincial governments eager to respond to employers' needs, but slow to protect foreign workers, critics like Yates say unions have a key role to play.
But some, like John Mortimer, president of Labour Watch, a union watchdog, said migrant workers must take responsibility as well and do their own research before taking a job abroad. Labour organizing may not be a solution, he added.
"Some union leaders ... believe any worker is better off unionized than not. They are a business. It's more revenue," he said. "They accept that the temporary foreign worker programs are a reality, so they move to represent them, even though they may ... think they are taking jobs from Canadians."
Still, unions have made progress in organizing Canada's migrant workers in spite of legal limitations placed on unionization and high turnovers among certain fields.
This summer, the United Food and Commercial Workers signed a contract that included 70 migrant workers with Winnipeg's Mayfair Farms. In May, the Canadian Steelworkers Union and Migrante Ontario, a grassroots advocacy group, launched the Independent Workers Association (Home Worker Section) to offer live-in caregivers discounted legal counselling, insurance and dental plans.
Last year, the Alberta Federation of Labour set up an advocate's office to collect data and assist temporary foreign workers with complaints against employers.
"The unions are basically doing what the governments should be doing," said Stan Raper of the food and commercial workers' union, which last year forced a Red Deer, Alta., hog plant in a collective agreement to fund workplace training and a community integration program for 240 migrant workers from the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Philippines and Ukraine.
The contract also made the employer sponsor 190 of the workers as landed immigrants through the Alberta Provincial Nominee program. Today, more than 75 have received their immigrant papers.
The B.C. government and Service Employees' Union is working with counterparts in 14 other countries to prepare foreign-trained health-care workers on Canadian working conditions, labour rights and basic settlement needs through multilingual education materials abroad.
"With globalization and transnational migration, you can only raise awareness and improve labour conditions by building bridges with workers in other countries," said Lorene Oikawa, the B.C. union's vice-president.
Despite the effort, Chris Ramsaroop of Justice for Migrant Workers said many foreign workers are still too afraid or too busy working to join the movement.
"It is very difficult to organize them because they are so isolated," said the community worker.
"We have a more racialized migrant workforce than ever. Canada's unions must develop more creative ways to ... include them in the labour movement."
Toronto Star, Aug 27 2008
Byline: Nicholas Keung
Journal of Commerce, Aug 20 2008
Byline: Richard Gilbert
Unions and contractors in Alberta disagree about the merits of a new federal government immigration program.
Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Diane Finley outlined recently the details of a proposal, which targets temporary foreign workers (TFWs) and foreign graduate students.
It will allow applicants with managerial, professional, technical or trade work experience to become permanent residents and eventually Canadian citizens.
"Choosing newcomers based on knowledge of our labour market and experience within Canadian society would make Canada a more attractive destination for skilled individuals from around the world," said Finley.
"International students and skilled workers would be more likely to choose Canada if they knew their time in Canada and contribution to Canadian society would assist in their eligibility to apply to stay permanently."
The program is open to TFWs with at least two years of work experience and graduates of post-secondary programs lasting at least two academic years, provided they have at least one year of work experience.
The Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) is extremely critical of the federal government's proposed new measures to fast-track citizenship for only certain classes of TFWs.
"By restricting this benefit to only professional, technical and skilled occupations, the government is setting up a permanent underclass of unskilled temporary foreign workers who will be deprived of the rights to citizenship being extended only to elite workers," said Gil McGowan, Alberta Federation of Labour president.
"The great majority of temporary foreign workers in Alberta do not fall into the privileged O, A and B designated occupations."
Only 14,842 temporary workers or 39.8 per cent of all TFWs in Alberta would have been included in this program in 2007, according to McGowan.
This means 22,415 other, lesser skilled temporary foreign workers would have been excluded.
He said the federal government has left out unskilled service sector workers and labourers (level D), which is the fastest growing occupational category for TFWs in Alberta. In 2007, this category accounted for 6,338 workers.
McGowan argued that the government is creating a class of exploited workers, who can be endlessly cycled back to their home countries when their work in Canada is done.
Merit Contractors Association strongly disagrees with the AFL's position and supports the federal government's proposal.
"What McGowan doesn't understand is the federal government is constipated," said Bill Stewart, vice president of Merit.
"There are about 900,000 people waiting for admission to Canada for landed immigrant status. This is a six-year backlog. The system needs a laxative."
Currently, there is no immigration pathway that values experience in Canada as a key indicator of a newcomer's likelihood to succeed.
The federal skilled worker program is the most important avenue available for people who want to become permanent residents.
It was designed for overseas immigration and does not focus on Canadian experience.
Skilled tradespersons and TFWs may not qualify to immigrate under this program because they often lack sufficient formal education to qualify.
Critics also argue that the program is being compromised by long waiting times caused by the backlog of applicants being processed at Canada's missions abroad.
Stewart explained that the latest numbers he has from Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) show that only 524 skilled trades people were admitted as landed immigrants in 2003 and 2004.
The Canadian Experience Class was announced in the 2007 budget and is a key element of the Harper government's immigration plan.
CIC estimates that 10,000 to 12,000 people will come to Canada in 2008 under the program.
"How many of these workers will come to Alberta?" asked Stewart.
"If we assume 1,000 people come to Alberta, this is still a drop in the bucket."
According to the Construction Sector Council, 31,035 workers will be needed for Alberta to keep pace with investment new construction projects between 2008 and 2016.
Another 21,271 workers are required to replace retiring baby boomers in the same period.
Canada helping temporary foreign workers and foreign students to get residency
Last week the Canadian Department of Immigration and Citizenship announced the details of the proposed Canadian Experience Class, which helps temporary foreign workers and foreign student graduates get residency visas in Canada.
Canadian Visa Bureau, August 20, 2008
The new avenue for Canadian residency visas will mean work experience will have more weighting when the Immigration Department is considering a person's application for residency.
The Canadian Experience Class will help foreign nationals on a Canadian work permit or a Canadian study permit to use their managerial, professional, technical or trade work experience as points towards their applications for residency and citizenship.
The applicants using the Experience Class will still need to prove their English language ability and their occupational skill level. Final changes to the Immigration Bill will be made after a 15-day review period.
"The Canadian Experience Class is one more measure this government is proposing to make our immigration system more attractive and accessible to individuals with diverse skills from around the world, and more responsive to Canada's labour market needs," said the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship Diane Finley. "This new proposed avenue for immigration would also go further to spread the benefits of immigration into smaller centres across Canada."
The Minister is hoping that the changes will encourage more people to stay in Canada permanently and attract more skilled workers to the country.
"Choosing newcomers based on knowledge of our labour market and experience within Canadian society would make Canada a more attractive destination for skilled individuals from around the world," added Minister Finley. "International students and skilled workers would be more likely to choose Canada if they knew their time in Canada and contribution to Canadian society would assist in their eligibility to apply to stay permanently."
However, according to the Journal of Commerce, the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) has raised concern about the proposal.
"By restricting this benefit to only professional, technical and skilled occupations, the government is setting up a permanent underclass of unskilled temporary foreign workers who will be deprived of the rights to citizenship being extended only to elite workers," said Gil McGowan, Alberta Federation of Labour President.
Alberta is desperate for more skilled workers to move to the region; currently 900,000 skilled workers are waiting to get visas approved to move to Canada and Alberta are will be needing around 50,000 of them. According to the news provider, the Construction Sector Council has said 31,035 skilled workers will be needed to maintain development progress over the next eight years and a further 21,271 workers will be needed to replace the retiring baby boomer generation.
In related news, the Canadian Government has also recently amended the Post-Graduation Work Permit Program, the Foreign Credentials Referral Office, improved resettlement programs, and streamlined the application process for skilled migrants so that more skilled workers and temporary workers can contribute to the Canadian community.