Temporary Foreign Worker program must be changed, workers say

Hard to know how widespread this abuse is but nature of program and vulnerability of workers means significant potential for such abuse:

Henry Aguirre, a temporary foreign worker from Guatemala, considered himself lucky when he got a job in Quebec as a chicken catcher, rounding up poultry and handing them over for processing.

Aguirre, 27, said he was quickly disillusioned when he learned the job paid him by volume instead of full-time, with no pay for time spent travelling from farm to farm.

He said he and his fellow Guatemalan workers had signed job offers they didn’t understand since they were all written in French.

“We didn’t understand the work permit; if we had, we wouldn’t have signed,” he said through an interpreter in a recent interview.

Aguirre was one of a group of foreign workers and activists who attended a small demonstration outside Montreal’s St Joseph’s Oratory earlier this month to call for changes to Canada’s temporary foreign worker program.

Among other things, they are calling for an end to the practice of issuing closed work permits, which restricts a worker to a single employer.

Viviana Medina, a community organizer who attended the protest, said closed work permits, language barriers and a fear of losing their jobs means many workers are reluctant to file complaints against their employers.

“The moment they say something, they’ll be sent back,” she said. “They have to stay in these conditions because they don’t want to lose their jobs.”

A study from the Université du Québec published earlier this month found that many Guatemalan migrant workers in the province are charged recruitment fees in their home countries, despite such practices being prohibited.

The study, which is based on interviews conducted between June and November 2015, found some workers even ended up using the deeds to their homes as a guarantee they’d pay back the money they owed for recruitment fees, according to the spokesman for a union that helped with the study.

“The precarity that brings really makes it difficult for a worker to ever take a stand and complain about the working or living conditions or abuses in the workplace or lack of getting the things that were guaranteed to them,” said Pablo Godoy of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

The federal government says it acknowledges the need for action and has taken a number of steps to reduce exploitation and abuse of temporary workers.

“Changes include increased inspections, improved information sharing and referrals for criminal investigation, and administrative monetary penalties and bans for employers who violate program conditions,” Julia Sullivan, an official with the department of Employment and Social Development, wrote in an email.

The government plans to do more in the future by further increasing inspections and making sure workers and employers understand their rights and obligations, she said.

Aguirre, frustrated with catching chickens, eventually began using a job placement agency to look for other work.

He and 14 others were subsequently picked up by border services in Oct. 2016 accused of violating the terms of their work permit, he said.

The workers have filed complaints with the province’s workplace health and safety board and requested a judicial review of their treatment during their arrest.

Their lawyer, Susan Ramirez, says she’s met hundreds of workers who have been denied health care or other rights.

“It’s a systemic problem,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s problematic because they’re under the governance of one employer who ignores their rights, and there’s a language barrier.”

Aguirre, for his part, has successfully obtained an open work permit until October, when the request for a judicial review will be heard in court.

Source: Temporary Foreign Worker program must be changed, workers say

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Temporary foreign worker program rife with oversight problems, says auditor

Which program has the OAG not found problems with?

Highlights oversight and enforcement capacity issues within government. Above chart shows both temporary workers under the TFWP and the International Mobility Program:

Canada’s temporary foreign workers program is rife with oversight problems that appear to have allowed lower-paid international workers to take jobs that out-of-work Canadians could fill, the federal auditor general says.

Some companies have effectively built a business model on the program that could be having unintended consequences that the government doesn’t know about, including wage suppression or discouraging capital investment and innovation, said Michael Ferguson’s report on the program, part of a fresh batch of federal audits tabled Tuesday.

Ferguson’s report says the government approved applications for temporary foreign workers even when employers had not demonstrated reasonable efforts to train existing employees or hire unemployed Canadians, including those from under-represented groups, such as First Nations.

Nor did officials effectively crack down on companies that were found to have run afoul of the rules; few on-site inspections or face-to-face interviews with the foreign workers themselves were conducted, the audit found. Even when corrective action was recommended, it took months for all the necessary approvals.

Ferguson is calling for better oversight of the program and more pushback from federal officials to ensure companies applying to hire temporary foreign workers are doing so for the right reasons.

The department overseeing the program, Employment and Social Development Canada, says it plans to implement all of Ferguson’s recommendations.

Ferguson’s report comes months after a Commons committee recommended an overhaul to the program, and three years after the previous Conservative government made changes in a bid to ensure the program worked as intended: to help companies fill job vacancies only when qualified Canadians couldn’t be found for the work, and only when it didn’t negatively affect the local labour market.

Between 2013 and 2015, the number of temporary foreign workers in Canada dropped from 163,000 to just over 90,000, a result of the 2014 changes and the economic downturn.

Despite the drop in numbers, the audit team said it found numerous cases where employers gave dizzying reasons for needing a temporary foreign worker that departmental officials failed to challenge in 40 per cent of the cases reviewed as part of the audit.

Source: Temporary foreign worker program rife with oversight problems, says auditor – Macleans.ca

Businesses applaud changes to allow temporary foreign workers to stay as long as permits renewed

Yet another reversal of the previous government’s policy but partial  -the caps on company numbers remain with priority to be given to under-represented groups in Canada:

The government announced Tuesday afternoon it will allow migrant workers to continue filling jobs in industries ranging from meat-packing to tourism for as many years as their employers continue to renew their permit – in effect, making the presence of these temporary workers more permanent.

“Many people who fell under this category are people who would return to Canada, again and again and again, year after year,” said Michael Burt, director of industrial economic trends at the Conference Board of Canada. “It’s a positive thing in a sense that, broadly speaking, both employers and TFWs were looking for opportunities to stay in Canada to keep that relationship going.”

After four years of working in Canada, most migrant workers in occupations requiring little or no post-secondary education would then be unable to return here for another four years unless they secured permanent residency through a provincial immigration program.

That “four-in-four-out” policy was created by the Conservative government in 2011 to ensure that jobs filled by temporary foreign workers were truly temporary. It led to thousands of foreign workers remaining in Canada undocumented, and thousands more leaving while employers in industries like agriculture, food processing and hospitality complained of persistent labour shortages.

“It uprooted people who had lived and worked in the country for many, many years,” said Syed Hussan, an organizer with the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, which is calling for permanent residency for temporary foreign workers upon landing.

In many cases, employers proved no Canadians were available for the jobs these workers were leaving behind so they could hire new temporary foreign workers to fill the roles. In others, the four-year limit, combined with other restrictions on the temporary foreign worker program, meant that jobs went unfilled even though employers increased efforts to recruit Canadians.

“It has had the effect of forcing a lot of people to go home that we should really be pursuing to stay in Canada permanently, as opposed to giving them the boot,” said Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

Kelly and other industry representatives are hopeful the Liberal government will soon follow through on its promise to develop pathways to permanent residency for lower-skilled workers, who are currently shut out of federal immigration programs.

…Some economists, such as Armine Yalnizyan at the left-wing Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, also support granting permanent residency to more migrant workers. Relying on a permanent stream of temporary workers destabilizes local labour markets by suppressing wages and opportunities for young Canadians, Yalnizyan said.

But others say the removal of the four-year limit blurs the distinctions between permanent and temporary immigration programs, raising questions about the future of Canada’s immigration system.

“What distinguishes the two streams now, when the idea of ‘temporary’ is taken out of the equation by removing the amount of time they can spend in Canada?” said Colin Busby, associate director of research at the C.D. Howe Institute.

It is unclear how Canada will balance taking in a large number of temporary foreign workers permanently with the permanent immigration system’s traditional focus on high-skilled workers to meet Canada’s long-term economic needs, Busby added.

But, for many in the agricultural sector, including Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst, executive director of the Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council, long-term economic and social integration of temporary workers is precisely the point.

“There should be opportunities for them and pathways to become Canadian citizens,” she said.

Number of federal inspections under foreign worker program on rise

As the Liberal government considers relaxing some of the requirements for the Temporary Foreign Workers program, it will be important to maintain an active investigation program both to combat misuse as well as ensure public confidence in the integrity of the program:

The number of federal inspections under the temporary foreign worker program is up dramatically this year and two businesses have been added to a public blacklist.

In response to complaints of poor working and living conditions, federal officials investigated Obeid Farms in Vanessa, Ont., where they concluded that 20 temporary foreign workers were consistently working seven days a week.

Officials also took issue with how the travel costs of workers were handled by AYR Motor Express, a New Brunswick-based trucking company.

Employment Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk personally signed off on the decision to publicly ban the two companies from the program temporarily.

The minister’s move comes as the Liberal government is weighing options for a further update to the temporary foreign worker program that will be announced later this year. In spite of sluggish economic growth, Canadian firms from coast to coast and across many sectors and skill levels continue to report labour shortages and insist that there is a genuine need for the controversial program.

Regarding Obeid Farms, a note to the Employment Minister submitted in Federal Court said this is the first time a public ban has been invoked in relation to the seasonal agricultural worker section of the temporary foreign worker program.

“Such determination would therefore have broader implications for this sector. It is likely that a determination of non-compliance will garner significant public and stakeholder attention,” deputy Employment Minister Louise Levonian wrote in a June 17 memo.

The threat of being named and shamed is a major source of anxiety for employers who hire temporary foreign workers. Many firms have hired lawyers in order to manage what are viewed by some as excessive requests for documentation.

Data obtained by The Globe and Mail reveal that in 2014, when the federal government launched a new inspection regime, no inspections were conducted under the new rules. That figure rose to 586 the following year.

However, officials have already conducted 1,537 inspections as of Aug. 15 of this year.

The spike in inspections is a result of sweeping reforms announced in 2014 by the then-Conservative government in response to high-profile cases of abuse in the program, including companies hiring foreign workers when Canadians were available. The 2014 reforms split the program in two, maintaining a smaller temporary foreign worker program while carving out areas like intra-company transfers and student exchanges into a new international mobility program.

The reforms raised the fees for obtaining a permit, called a labour market impact assessment, from $250 to $1,000. The added revenue was meant to cover the cost of increased inspections, with a goal of “thousands” of inspections a year.

Liberal Immigration Minister John McCallum recently told The Globe that those 2014 changes went too far and that the new government will be announcing further updates to the program later this year.

Source: Number of federal inspections under foreign worker program on rise – The Globe and Mail

Canada’s uncomfortable reliance on migrant workers

The dark side of temporary foreign workers (the film maker introduced her latest film – not sure if it was shown – at the Metropolis Conference in Mexico City last year):

Min Sook Lee read all those headlines in February and March. A documentary filmmaker, she had been busy chronicling another side of the ketchup frenzy, an angle nobody bothered to mention: the migrant, temporary labourers—thousands of them—who toil in the vast greenhouses of Leamington, picking and packaging the vegetables we eat every day, tomatoes included. “I am keenly aware of how Leamington has been drumming up a lot of nationalist fervour,” Lee says. “I think that myopia has to be interrupted.”

Her latest project, Migrant Dreams, will do just that. Premiering at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival on May 1, the film explores the dark side of Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), a controversial federal initiative that allows companies—from hotels to fast-food restaurants to slaughterhouses—to hire out-of-country employees when they can’t find willing Canadians to do the work. A story of abuse and exploitation in the heart of tomato country, the documentary evokes anything but national pride.

“When people talk about buying organic, buying local, I think it’s a really shortsighted viewpoint because it doesn’t factor in who is doing the work,” Lee says. “Yes, it’s important to buy local, but also to think about labour issues. Are the people in the local farms and local work sites being treated properly?”

The film raises many other uncomfortable questions, at a time when Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have promised to launch a review of the TFWP. Why are most of these employees denied the chance to pursue permanent residency in a country defined by immigration? Why are they tied to one company while they’re here, barred from switching jobs? Who is checking to make sure their workplaces are safe and their accommodations humane? “This is a very critical, necessary public dialogue that we need to have,” Lee says. “There has been almost no political will or national interest in the situation of migrant workers. This isn’t new.”

In existence (in one form or another) for more than four decades, the TFWP was created to address critical labour shortages in particular sectors. Simply put, if an employer cannot find a Canadian to do a certain job, it can ask Ottawa’s permission to contract a provisional worker from abroad, for a maximum stint of four years. The government will then conduct a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) to confirm that a Canadian can’t be found to fill the opening. At this moment, more than 60,000 foreigners are working in Canada under the TFWP.

When the program does make news, the theme is usually the same: Are these foreign workers stealing paycheques from hard-working Canadians? In 2012, Vancouver-based HD Mining came under fire for hiring 200 people from China for a coal mine project, triggering a court challenge by organized labour groups. A few months later, RBC was forced into full damage-control mode amid allegations that the bank was replacing some IT staff with temporary foreign workers. Although the original story was slightly torqued, perception became reality. (An internal government document, leaked to a newspaper at the time, confirmed people’s worst fears. Some employers may be using migrant workers to address “long-term structural labour gaps” instead of short-term needs, it said.)

In 2013, Stephen Harper’s government announced major changes, giving the feds more power to suspend work permits if employers abuse the program, and requiring companies to have a “firm plan” to eventually transition to a Canadian workforce. Further reforms followed, including fines ranging from $500 to $1 million for “misuse” of the TFWP. “Our government is committed to ensuring that Canadians are always considered first for available jobs,” the Tories proclaimed.

But so often lost in the debate are the foreign workers themselves—and how the system treats them. “They perform what I sometimes think of as invisible work,” says Jody Brown, a Toronto lawyer who represents some TFWs. “It is not good to paint the entire industry with the same brush, because I know there are some employers out there who recruit temporary foreign workers and do treat them appropriately. But there is definitely a dark side to it.”

Lee’s film follows a group of Indonesian women who are essentially prisoners to their greenhouse employers in the Leamington area, constantly afraid of losing their jobs and being deported before their contracts expire. It also reveals the shady world of international recruiters, some of whom charge foreign workers thousands of dollars in illegal fees—and show up every week to collect their payments. (In December 2014, the Ontario Provincial Police laid extortion charges against three alleged recruiters in the region, saying they charged illicit fees ranging from $1,400 to $11,500. The trio’s next court date, in Windsor, is scheduled for Aug. 3.)

Source: Canada’s uncomfortable reliance on migrant workers

Ottawa allows seasonal exemption to temporary foreign worker rules

Not surprising, given the regional politics:

The Liberal government has quietly approved changes aimed at helping Atlantic Canadian seafood processors that will allow them to bring in unlimited numbers of low-skilled temporary foreign workers to fill seasonal jobs this year.

Ottawa approved the foreign-worker exemption in response to lobbying from Atlantic seafood processors and Liberal MPs, who warned that recent restrictions to the temporary foreign worker program were hampering business. New Brunswick Fisheries Minister Rick Doucet recently said the labour shortage in his province is so bad that some lobster processing plants have had to throw lobsters in the trash.

The Liberals – who swept all 32 ridings in Atlantic Canada in last year’s federal election – are justifying the exemption as a short-term measure to buy time until a full review of the foreign worker program can be conducted later this year.

Other industry groups – such as Restaurants Canada – are questioning why exemptions are being allowed for some sectors and not others, and why they were never told of the change.

The House of Commons finance committee recently heard from a wide range of industry associations, including the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, that requested a loosening of restrictions to the program.

The temporary exemption comes as Finance Minister Bill Morneau prepares to deliver a budget on Tuesday that will outline the federal government’s response to rising unemployment caused by the decline in Canada’s energy sector in Western Canada and Newfoundland and Labrador, which has long been a source of work for thousands of Atlantic Canadians.

Source: Ottawa allows seasonal exemption to temporary foreign worker rules – The Globe and Mail

Temporary foreign workers program faces federal review

Not unexpected to see political pressure from Atlantic Canada.

Will be interesting to watch the political debate, given that former Minister Kenney sees one of his legacies threatened (after reversing earlier Conservative policies than made it easier for businesses to hire Temporary Foreign Workers) and the degree to which the Government responds:

While the Liberals criticized the Conservative government’s handling of the program, the party did not propose reforms in its 2015 election platform.

All seats in Atlantic Canada went to Liberals, and MPs from the region are pressing hard for changes, saying the restrictions hurt seasonal businesses and the service sector.

Nova Scotia Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner, who is also Ms. Mihychuk’s parliamentary secretary, said the program needs to be overhauled to take into account the demands of seasonal businesses.

“Changes over the last couple of years have impacted seasonal industries. We still generate over 50 per cent of the regional GDP through seasonal industries. The work force is getting older. The out-migration is significant,” he said.

Yvonne Jones, the Liberal MP from Labrador, said the changes to the TFW program hurt her province’s tourism and fish processing industries, making it difficult to get seasonal labour.

“Because of the fact we are unable to recruit under the temporary foreign worker program, we have seen a lot of businesses having to close or scale back their hours and days of operations. This is really affecting services to communities that need that service,” Ms. Jones said.

Conservative MP Jason Kenney, the former minister who overhauled the program, said it would be dumb economic policy to exempt fish plant workers from the terms of the temporary workers program when so many Atlantic Canadians are unemployed and many jobless oil workers are returning from Alberta and Saskatchewan.

“This is classic Liberal position. Make it easy for local fish plant workers to go on unemployment insurance and make it easier for the employers to bring in fish plant workers from overseas,” he said.

Mr. Kenney said one of the reasons his government tightened the rules for employment insurance and temporary foreign workers was that communities in Atlantic Canada had local fish plant workers collecting employment insurance while foreigners were doing their jobs.

Ms. Mihychuk said the review by the Commons employment committee needs to encompass every sector of the economy, including the impact of the collapse in oil prices.

“You look at the massive layoffs in Alberta, it’s really changing the labour market,” she said. “A lot of indigenous people are strongly opposed to [TFW], saying it’s time for indigenous people to be given a chance. So there are a lot of different angles to the whole program.”

Unemployment among aboriginal people is more than twice the rate for non-aboriginals, according to the 2011 National Household Survey.

The Liberals also believe a credible pathway to citizenship for foreign workers is needed.

“It’s a situation that is complicated. These are people – excellent people – and a lot of them want to stay in the country,” Ms. Mihychuk added.

The Liberals say the Conservatives mismanaged the 2014 reforms and based many of their regional employment assumptions on inaccurate labour market data.

“Under the temporary workers program, basically, they connected it to data around employment statistics, but those employment statistics were not completely accurate,” Ms. Jones said. “They looked at large regions as opposed to individual areas where the problem was most sensitive. And because they didn’t go with the [mandatory] long-form census, a lot of the data was incomplete,” she added.

Mr. Kenney said the review is unnecessary, saying the reforms he brought in were balanced and well thought-out.

“I think our changes have turned out to be prescient given the downturn in the western economy, in particular where the most skilled part [of TFW] was being overused. With over 100,000 Albertans having lost their jobs in the past few months, and if more people were pouring into the Alberta labour market from abroad as de facto indentured workers while many Canadians are facing unemployment, that would be totally unacceptable,” he said.

Source: Temporary foreign workers program faces federal review – The Globe and Mail

Guest column: Canada’s migrant worker program a model for the world | Windsor Star

Ken Enns, owner of Enns Plant Farm, on the need for Temporary Foreign Workers in the agriculture sector:

Our workers are here on eight-month contracts, can leave and go home at any time they want, must be paid minimum wage plus whatever bonus is negotiated, full health care coverage when they step off the plane, full workman’s compensation, free weekly transport to town for shopping and supplied living accommodations.

They go home after eight months with a very large amount of money to put their children through university, they support their families, send home generators, tools to start machine shops, home appliances and all the things they cannot get at home.

We have many workers who have applied to return now for 25 and 30 years in a row. They continually ask if they can bring more of their family members for the next year — hardly the request from a person who is a “slave,” as described in the article.

We have the finest labour program in the world and we should be holding it up as a model for the world to follow. This is how you treat and protect your migrant workers.

Instead of trashing the program, we should be increasing it. Instead of giving foreign aid to impoverished nations, we should have their people come here and we could get some benefit for all that aid.

Our industry is one of a very few that can compete with and do better than the Americans. Our labour program is one of the reasons.

Guest column: Canada’s migrant worker program a model for the world | Windsor Star.

Foreign students left behind in new Express Entry immigration program | Toronto Star

Oversight or by design? Metropolis Panel on Temporary Foreign Workers March 27 will have opportunity to discuss:

International graduates from Canadian universities and colleges say Ottawa’s new skilled immigration system actually hinders their access to permanent residency instead of promoting it.

The scholars say their once-prized assets — Canadian education credentials and post-graduate work experience — have little to no value under the new Express Entry program, which came into effect Jan. 1.

The problem, which the federal government denies, lies in the significance given to a certificate called the Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA). It is issued by Ottawa to ensure a candidate’s skills are sufficiently in demand to warrant hiring an immigrant.

Ottawa says applicants for Express Entry, such as international graduates, do not need an LMIA to qualify. But Express Entry acceptance is based on a point system and it’s not possible to earn enough points without an LMIA, immigration experts say.

“The new system is flawed,” said Toronto immigration lawyer Shoshana Green. “We want people who went to school and have work experience in Canada. These people are already fully integrated. And now we are ignoring them. It is just bizarre.”

Under the Express Entry system, an applicant may earn a maximum of 1,200 points. An LMIA automatically earns applicants 600 points. The other 600 possible points are awarded for personal attributes such as education, language skills and work experience.

How many points does it take to qualify for Express Entry? It changes. So far it has been as high as 886, and has dropped to 735 points. Regardless, the qualifying level is more than 600, so an LMIA is necessary.

Foreign students left behind in new Express Entry immigration program | Toronto Star.

Also covered in the Globe:

International students in limbo under immigration system changes – The Globe and Mail

Kenney says changes to temporary foreign worker program in Alberta not exemptions

Seems a reasonable transitional adjustment (others may disagree), responding to employer pressure:

In a letter to Conservative MPs last week, Kenney says the federal government is giving a one-time exemption to temporary foreign workers in Alberta from being counted under the cap on low-wage workers, provided they meet strict criteria.

Kenney says this will allow employers to apply for renewed Labour Market Impact Assessments while their existing temporary foreign workers pursue permanent immigration.

As well, Kenney says in the letter that Citizenship and Immigration Canada will provide a one-year bridging work permit to TFWs who are subject to the four-year limit.

The letter says this should provide some relief to employers who have TFWs that have already applied for immigration and are in the queue waiting for their applications to be assessed.

The Alberta Federation of Labour says the Conservative government has caved in to pressure from low-wage employers who want to hold on to “exploitable” temporary foreign workers for a longer period of time.

“Last June, the Harper government promised to limit the number of TFWs that low-wage employers could use. But now, they’ve quietly broken their promise and changed the rules,” AFL president Gil McGowan said in a news release Tuesday.

Kenney says changes to temporary foreign worker program in Alberta not exemptions