Speeches | Temporary Foreign Workers Program

18 June 2007

Hon. Grant Mitchell rose pursuant to notice of May 2, 2007:

That he will call the attention of the Senate to the need to review the Temporary Foreign Workers program in order to ensure that it alleviates the difficulties businesses have in circumstances of legitimate labour shortage, without exploiting foreign workers or undermining Canadian labour.

He said: I would like to begin by thanking my colleagues this evening in the Senate. I know it is late. I have waited a long time to have a chance to speak to this item. I thank honourable senators for their patience this evening. This is an important topic.

There is a strong need to review the temporary foreign workers program in order to ensure that it alleviates the difficulties that businesses have in circumstances of legitimate labour shortage without exploiting foreign workers or undermining Canadian labour.

[Translation]

The purpose of the temporary foreign workers program is to address the short-term labour shortages currently facing Canadian businesses and industries, and to offer them the opportunity to recruit qualified workers from outside Canada when not enough workers can be found within our borders.

[English]

There are numerous problems with the program. The application process is cumbersome for small businesses. Employees are sent back to their home countries just as they are integrating into their communities and workplaces. These workers are vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers. Rules to ensure that the foreign workers meet the same standards regarding wage rates and technical qualifications as Canadian workers are not transparent and hard to enforce, and there are few accountability mechanisms to ensure compliance once the workers have arrived in Canada.

[Translation]

There are over 150,000 temporary foreign workers living in Canada, and that number is on the rise. In fact, in the first quarter of 2006, the number of temporary foreign workers increased by 14 per cent compared to the same period in 2005. In my home province of Alberta, that figure rose by 41 per cent for the same period.

(2320)

[English]

Under any circumstances, this kind of increase without a similar enhancement of oversight and accountability mechanisms will have consequences.

Recently, someone contacted my office with a story that I fear is becoming increasingly common. The individual came to Canada along with 13 other candidates to work as pipefitters and welders for an Alberta company. Under the Human Resources and Skills Development Canada Labour Market Opinion, the company was required to provide medical insurance, travel to and from Canada, and accommodation.

Instead, the company indicated that it would pay for the airfare to Canada and deduct the cost back through weekly payroll deductions, and the workers would be responsible for the cost of their own accommodation, board and transportation to and from the work site.

On payroll slips, there are deductions for administration fees, permit fees, an $800 advance recovery fee and a $360 travel fee. On one paycheque, the gross earnings were $1,314 and the net pay was $243.41. How can that be right?

To make matters worse, within less than three months of their arrival in Canada the company terminated all the temporary foreign workers. The company says that it is for cause. They notified the employees that they would be transported back to the airport for return to their home country at their own expense.

[Translation]

At the same time, I have worked with reputable business owners who want to expand and contribute to our economic prosperity but are unable to because they cannot find skilled workers. They are therefore waiting indefinitely for applications by temporary foreign workers to be approved.

[English]

I have spoken to the owner of a northern Alberta trucking company, who told me that his Labour Market Opinion was approved two years ago but he cannot bring the workers in because immigration will not issue a work permit to the potential foreign workers, citing the fact that they are not qualified because they do not have an Alberta driver's licence. How do they get one if they cannot come here?

I have spoken to a small restaurant owner who has brought qualified chefs from his home country, only to have them sent home after a year and have his business suffer as a result as he struggles to find and train new chefs in a difficult market.

We have all heard the stories about the fast food restaurant that closes the drive-through in the middle of the day because there are not any staff, and the coffee shop that offers a $3,000 signing bonus. Businesses are shutting their doors and not expanding because they cannot find workers.

[Translation]

Clearly, there is a problem here. First, should this problem be solved by means of a temporary foreign worker program, or is this just a stopgap measure? Canada's future international competitiveness and productivity depend on our efforts to build our human capital.

We need to act more intelligently, focus on research and development and build an educated, skilled labour force. Insofar as temporary workers invited into Canada can pass on their know-how to Canadian workers or temporarily remedy a labour shortage in areas where the demand for workers outstrips the supply, the Temporary Foreign Worker Program is ideal.

And in some areas, the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program has worked extremely well for a very long time. But the type of jobs that bring foreign workers to Canada is changing. In 1996, 62 per cent of temporary foreign workers came to Canada to fill jobs requiring university, college or practical training. In 2005, that figure had dropped to 50 per cent.

[English]

Is it in the interest of Canadian long-term productivity and of our social fabric to use the temporary foreign workers program as a substitute for a better thought out, long-term immigration and labour force plan? The labour shortage in Alberta and other parts of the country is not likely to abate in the near future, yet there is severe underemployment of Aboriginal young people on the Prairies. We are consistently recruiting skilled new Canadians as permanent immigrants who cannot find jobs in their fields. In the future, more and more jobs will require a university education, yet our post-secondary school enrolment figures are not keeping up with our international competitors. The Conservative government has cut programs for literacy and daycare, both of which result in lower labour force participation rates.

[Translation]

This program should not serve as a substitute for a long-term solution to stimulate productivity in Canada and to enhance human potential in the future. We must never allow the creation of a sub-class of workers who are not citizens and who are exploited in Canada. We must never allow a temporary program to become a permanent solution.

[English]

What is the solution? Recent efforts to find solutions to the problems identified with the temporary foreign workers program have focused largely on the cumbersome nature of the program for businesses. For example, a memorandum of understanding with the Province of Alberta exempts the oil sands from the need for a Labour Market Opinion as long as one company has determined that there is a need for workers in the industry.

Similar agreements have been reached with other provinces — for instance, the Toronto construction industry, which has faced serious problems with illegal migrant workers in the past. Recently, the government allowed businesses to extend the terms of certain categories of workers to two years instead of one.

While these changes are welcome for legitimate businesses, the difficulty is that there are few accountability mechanisms being put in place to ensure that there is compliance. For example, with the lifting of the requirement of a Labour Market Opinion in certain circumstances, after a single company has been approved, there is a danger of a lowest common denominator effect. A recent survey of half the building trades unions in Alberta indicates — and this is surprising but true — that there are currently at least 8,900 unemployed domestic skilled journeyman building trades workers in Alberta, despite the intensity of the economy.

Combined with evidence that some companies are not complying with the requirements of their agreements, and the possibility that the calculation of prevailing wage rates is being done in a way that could be less than the predominant wage rates of the major unions in the industry, it is possible that unscrupulous companies could bring in temporary foreign workers, and maybe are doing so to avoid paying the higher market-driven salaries.

A potential remedy to this situation would be to have more transparency in the way in which the prevailing wage rate is determined and to require that the predominant union in that industry sign off on that rate, as opposed to a single union in a single company. This is also an example of the need for more accountability by the companies that employ foreign workers.

[Translation]

Furthermore, certain inequalities are due to the very nature of the system. For example, individuals who come to Canada under the live-in caregiver immigration program can apply for permanent residency at the end of their contract whereas temporary workers cannot. Why the difference between these two categories of workers?

[English]

Similarly, a 2005 case was before the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, which has since been withdrawn, regarding mandatory payroll deductions for employment insurance. Is it fair that temporary foreign workers should be required to pay into employment insurance when there is no possibility they could ever benefit from the program?

[Translation]

I think that the most pressing change we need to see is better accountability measures, especially following the approval of temporary work permits and the arrival of the workers in Canada.

Once Human Resources Canada approval has been obtained, and once immigration services have let foreign workers in and given them their permits, the Department of Human Resources does very little follow-up. Applying labour standards is left up to provincial authorities. The standards vary from place to place, and in some cases, the criteria that apply to foreign workers differ from those that apply to Canadian workers.

(2330)

Despite its ruling that condemned discrimination against non-citizens, the Supreme Court also found that a person's job is not protected under anti-discrimination laws. As such, laws that authorize poorer working conditions for foreign workers than for their Canadian counterparts are unlikely to be found unconstitutional in Canada, even with respect to access to benefits. For example, Alberta's Employment Standards Code does not guarantee that most of the minimum working conditions or the Occupational Health and Safety Act provisions will apply to foreign agricultural workers. Temporary foreign workers are often ineligible for workplace accident benefits, and the guaranteed return to work applies only to those who had been in the job for 12 months at the time of the accident. To be eligible for Canada or Quebec Pension Plan benefits, a foreign worker must have held a job in Canada for at least four of the previous six years. Once again, a foreign worker injured on the job is not eligible for benefits.

[English]

In almost all provinces, mechanisms for ensuring compliance with the terms and conditions of the temporary foreign works program tend to be complaints-based rather than random audits. Due to the nature of the employer-employee relationship, it is unlikely that a temporary foreign worker will lodge a complaint. First, the worker's status in Canada is dependent upon maintaining their employment with that employer. Lack of language skills, fear of being returned to the country of origin and uncertain status in Canada tend to prevent workers from speaking out. As a result, the program can be used by some unscrupulous employers to obtain cheap foreign labour and avoid paying fair wages and benefits for skilled Canadian labour. The story I began my speech with illustrates how difficult it is for workers to come forward. This demonstrates the need for a pro-active audit process.

There needs to be a process of audits of companies that employ temporary foreign workers, perhaps random audits, to ensure compliance with the terms and conditions of the HRSDC Labour Market Opinions and also with provincial employment standards. We need to implement some form of whistle-blower protection, not just for the foreign workers but also for the colleagues and the companies in which they work so that there is no fear of reprisal for those who come forward to report abuse. Finally, there must be penalties for companies that fail to comply, including both financial penalties and a ban on the use of more temporary foreign workers for a specified period of time.

Only with this kind of accountability mechanism in place can we ensure the protection of the rights of the workers who come to Canada with full expectation that their contracts will be honoured and protection of the honest businesses that rely on temporary foreign workers.

[Translation]

Furthermore, we have to study the long-term effects of the current trends on labour needs in Canada, in order to valorize Canada's human potential in the future. The temporary foreign workers program should complement, not replace, Canada's immigration and skills development programs. This type of program has to be firmly anchored in the Canadian values of economic prosperity and social justice

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