Employed, temporarily

Moratorium on temporary foreign workers makes things harder for people already struggling with a less than inviting system

When Senthil Thevar moved to Canada as a temporary foreign worker in 2008, he had high hopes for the future.

He’d met a recruiter who promised he could make big money working as a cook in North York. So the Mumbai native quit his job, hopped on a plane and made his way to Toronto.

“He told me [the employer] was willing to pay a good salary, said Thevar. “So I came to Canada for better opportunity.”

That better opportunity turned out to be working 12-hour days, six days a week in a kitchen, with no holidays and no benefits. Instead of the $18 an hour he’d been promised, Thevar estimates he made about $8 an hour – less than Ontario’s minimum wage which was $8.75 at the time.

Canada presents itself as a nation of immigrants, but in the last few years more of those immigrants have come to Canada on temporary permits. In fact, the number of temporary foreign workers entering Canada every year now exceeds the number of permanent immigrants.

The population of temporary foreign workers (TFW) has tripled in the last decade, to 338,000 in 2012, up from 101,000 in 2002.

It all started in 1973 with programs that allowed farmers to bring in temporary agricultural workers, and urban professionals to import live-in caregivers for their children and the elderly. The program expanded and in 2002 the Liberals opened the door to all types of low-skilled work.

Most TFWs can’t apply for permanent residency. If live-in caregivers fulfill all the technical requirements over two years, they can apply, but others aren’t so lucky.

There isn’t much opposition from the business community to provide foreign workers with a path to residency.

Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, says that possibility is “ideal.”

He calls the immigration system dishonest. “We tell the rest of the world, ‘Send us your best and brightest,’ but we’re still going to put them in jobs that are at the junior end of the skill set … and somehow we’re comfortable with that.”

What we’re not comfortable with is bringing in immigrants to work in laboratories Canadians want these skilled jobs for themselves, he says.

The system was once fairer. “When my Ukrainian ancestors on my mom’s side came to rural Manitoba, they didn’t come to work in a laboratory they came to work on the farm.”

In theory, TFWs have to be paid the same and have the same rights as other Canadian workers. In practice, because they’re dependent on their employers for their legal status in this country, that’s not the case, says Sharryn Aiken, a law professor at Queen’s University.

“So long as somebody’s status is temporary and conditional – in effect tied to their place of employment – the rights of the worker are essentially thrown out the window,” she says. “They exist on paper but are very, very difficult to realize in practice.”

For instance, although TFWs are required pay into Employment Insurance every month, there is no way they can collect it.

To be eligible for unemployment benefits, you must be available to work. TFWs who quit or lose their jobs for whatever reason also lose their work permits, and since they’re not legally allowed to work until they get new permits, they can’t collect EI until they find new jobs.

So when Thevar got fed up and quit his first job, he had no way to support himself while he waited eight months for a new work permit. He got by with the help of friends and by stretching his savings.

“Instead of eating three times [a day], you eat, like, one time,” says Thevar with a bit of a laugh. “I starved myself. I had no choice, right?”

Thevar’s experience is hardly the worst.

Over the years, worker advocates have documented everything from wage theft and illegal recruitment fees to workplace safety violations and overcrowded and substandard living conditions. To date, there has been little government oversight of the TFW program.

While allegations of abuse and exploitation of TFWs seem to have made little impression on politicians in Ottawa, recent findings by the C.D. Howe Institute that the program is suppressing wages and increasing unemployment in the west, as well as accusations by Canadian workers that employers are passing them over in favour of foreign temps, have spurred the government to action.

After the CBC reported that a pizzeria in Saskatchewan fired Canadian employees to hire TFWs, and a McDonald’s franchise in BC cut the hours of local staffers and ignored applications from qualified Canadian applicants, the government took action last month, imposing a moratorium on the food services sector’s access to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

“The moratorium is really bad news,” says Kelly.

“It’s deeply, deeply unfair to the vast majority of independent business owners who are using [the program] right.”

It’s also a burden on foreign temporary workers, who are often counted on to send money back home and now find themselves in limbo, he says.

According to the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association, TFWs make up only about 2 per cent of Canadian restaurant employees, more than 80 per cent of them in western provinces where the oil and gas boom has made recruiting service industry workers difficult.

While regionally the big jump in the use of TFWs has been in areas of low unemployment like Alberta and BC, it’s also on the rise in places like Ontario, where almost a third of all Canadian TFWs live.

In Toronto alone, where the unemployment rate hovers around 8 per cent, there are almost as many temporary foreign workers as there are in the entire province of Alberta.

Now that the Temporary Foreign Worker Program is in the spotlight and a national election not too far off, the feds are promising to overhaul it. But given Ottawa’s track record on this issue, says Fay Faraday, a human rights lawyer and professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, she has little hope that it will lead to substantial improvement.

“They know these are not isolated incidents. These are not a couple of bad apples. The problem is systemic, and it needs a systemic response. I think we are at a tipping point, and real change needs to happen.”

One simple fix, she says, would be to ensure that workers of all skill levels have the ability to apply for permanent residence in Canada.

As long as the status of TFWs is tied to a specific employer, it’s “an open invitation to exploitation,” says Faraday.

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