­The Case for Tem­po­rary Work­ers

Changes to Canada’s tem­po­rary for­eign worker pro­gram are bring­ing greater per­ma­nence. The ben­e­fits to Al­berta could be per­ma­nent, too

Alberta Venture - - The Briefing - Rob­bie Jef­frey

>>> In 2013, 270 work­ers at Husky En­ergy’s Sun­rise project were laid off and re­placed by for­eign work­ers. Four months later, 65 iron­work­ers rep­re­sented by the Al­berta Fed­er­a­tion of Labour (AFL) lost their jobs at Im­pe­rial Oil’s Kearl Oil Sands Project to, al­legedly, Croa­t­ians hired for half the nor­mal wage. These were just two of many high-pro­file aber­ra­tions that fur­ther in­flamed the de­bate about tem­po­rary for­eign work­ers.

The dis­course was so heated be­cause when national iden­tity is at is­sue, sim­ple propo­si­tions raise com­pli­cated questions. The con­tro­ver­sial pro­gram aims to solve an el­e­men­tary math­e­mat­i­cal prob­lem: too many jobs and too few avail­able work­ers. But its is­sues are myr­iad. What do Cana­dian com­pa­nies owe Cana­di­ans, and what do Cana­di­ans owe for­eign­ers?

In De­cem­ber, be­gin­ning what prom­ises to be an over­haul of the pro­gram, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment scrapped the “four in, four out” rule, which set the length of the work­ers’ stay and ex­ile be­fore re­turn­ing to four years in each case. The re­quire­ment worked for no one – not for the in­dus­tries left with­out work­ers, like meat pro­cess­ing, bee­keep­ing and hos­pi­tal­ity; not for the unem­ployed Cana­dian, whose job prospects were un­af­fected; not for the for­eign worker, whose life was up­ended ev­ery time she was forced to leave a job her em­ployer wished she could keep. It seemed merely to ap­pease some ab­stract con­cern that no one held.

Al­berta stands to ben­e­fit from these changes – and, hope­fully, the changes to come. The prov­ince has the high­est per-capita num­ber of for­eign work­ers and, even in a down­turn, suf­fers from labour short­ages. Al­berta even has its own oc­cu­pa­tion-spe­cific pi­lot project un­der the pro­gram to help fill the vac­uum of trades­peo­ple. Tem­po­rary for­eign work­ers are the back­bone of en­tire sec­tors, and work­ers spend much of their in­come within the prov­ince. With a path to per­ma­nent res­i­dence, then cit­i­zen­ship, they and their chil­dren will build lives here, at­tend post­sec­ondary schools, and start busi­nesses that will em­ploy even more peo­ple.

There’s cause for cau­tion, no doubt. Above all, the gov­ern­ment needs to be firm: The pro­gram can­not al­low cor­po­ra­tions to re­place Cana­dian work­ers with for­eign work­ers in pur­suit of a swollen bot­tom line. Crit­ics like the AFL warn of dwin­dling wages, but in a coun­try where fewer work­ers be­long to unions and more fear for their job se­cu­rity, a de­clin­ing wage floor will al­ways be a con­cern. The pro­gram has been in ef­fect since the 1970s, but the num­ber of per­mit-hold­ers went from about 15,000 in 1994 to 37,000 a decade later. By 2015, there were more than 100,000 tem­po­rary work­ers in the prov­ince, and many lessons were learned the hard way. Em­ploy­ees were once bound to a sin­gle em­ployer, and em­ploy­ers could pay 15 per cent less than min­i­mum wage. Prospec­tive work­ers of­ten had to list a lan­guage other than English or French, mean­ing those with the clear­est path to in­te­gra­tion and cit­i­zen­ship rarely had the op­por­tu­nity.

Many of these changes will ben­e­fit Al­berta and it’s worth re­mem­ber­ing that many of them were fought for and won by mi­grant-worker coali­tions and non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tions. There are count­less sto­ries of abuse gone un­re­ported, and changes to work-per­mit ap­pli­ca­tions mean months of un­em­ploy­ment for work­ers who leave hos­tile work en­vi­ron­ments or lose their jobs. In the National Ob­server, Natalie Dro­let, a lawyer with the West Coast Do­mes­tic Work­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion, said roughly one in three of her clients has ex­pe­ri­enced some form of abuse. Ex­tor­tion is a se­ri­ous prob­lem, too, and though mi­grant work­ers pay into Em­ploy­ment In­sur­ance, they aren’t el­i­gi­ble to re­ceive it. This il­lu­mi­nates an­other com­pli­cated ques­tion con­cern­ing national iden­tity: How should Cana­di­ans, and Cana­dian busi­nesses, treat the most vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple? Since they’re good for busi­ness, busi­ness needs to fight to im­prove con­di­tions for the work­ers on whom they de­pend. –

The ser­vice in­dus­try, agri­cul­ture and meat pro­cess­ing all rely heav­ily on tem­po­rary for­eign work­ers

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