There has been much talk around temporary foreign workers (TFWs) of late. In past, the occasional media blip about some person from some other country being injured or abused at a Canadian workplace failed to inspire much more than passing notice.
Now, the bottom of the totem pole has inverted – the repositioning prompted by a steady stream of allegations of threats, tacit censure or willful blindness, working individually or in concert. And if those complaints were not sufficient to get TFWs bumped to the front page, there were the deaths of four migrant workers in Toronto in 2009, which attracted notice in the form of criminal charges.
Rumblings of conduct most unbecoming involving TFWs were initially met by arguments around skill shortages, followed by talk of competition in tough economic times. But as time passed and indefensible complaints grew, disjointed murmurs were transformed into a more unified voice denouncing a litany of safety, labour standards and human rights wrongs – treatment that most Canadian workers simply would not abide.
A closer look at the Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP) – a federal initiative that grew too quickly, ratcheting up “needed” jobs to absurd levels – revealed a shocking absence of jurisdictional cooperation. After-the-fact enforcement became a provincial responsibility, though response often seemed hobbled by a lack of awareness, will or resources.
Add the many TFWs who faced high language hurdles (some fearing to open their mouths at all), a recruiting system that promised more than it delivered (sometimes for a hefty fee), and an obligation for workers to remain with a single employer, and the overblown system quickly ran amuck.
More recently, standing up and saying “no” has gained traction. The Canadian public seems to have developed little appetite for this particular brand of destruction.
Unions and advocates were first to note some obvious deficiencies, and raised voices coupled with a downed economy have governments, finally and thankfully, responding.
Consider these recent efforts: The Yukon and federal governments have reached an agreement giving the territory a role in managing the TFWP within its borders; Nova Scotia released a consultation paper on workplace conditions and protections for TFWs last year; skilled TFWs certified in Alberta’s optional trades can now apply directly to the Alberta Immigrant Nominee Program for permanent residency instead of having to apply with their employers; and Saskatchewan has kicked off public consultations to gather input on TFW legislation.
“Although there is legislation in place to protect workers in the province, the laws may not adequately protect foreign workers who could be vulnerable to unfair treatment, particularly during recruitment and immigration phases,” notes Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Advanced Education, Employment and Immigration in Regina.
Some “fixes” revolve around treatment of workers once in-country. TFWs need rights right away: concrete protections under federal and provincial statutes; the ability to switch employers if promised work, conditions and pay are absent; and easy access to enforcement officials. Rights should be complete, and in place for the life of a permitted stay.
The approach will help ensure that workers have on-the-job protections – not just on paper, but in practice – that anyone working in this country should have. Without supporting a level playing field, Canada runs the risk of seeing standards fall for all workers, temporary or otherwise.
Wholesale change is also necessary at the federal level before these workers even emerge from trains, planes or automobiles. The TFWP has been stretched into an unrecognizable shape, one apparently driven almost exclusively by the bottom line. It should not be assumed that this misshapen entity can be responsive in a timely manner, able to expand (or contract) to fit Canada’s changing needs.
As it stands, the program has assumed a sort of squatter’s right that threatens to turn temporary permanent and supplant whole work force populations.
Depending on one’s point of view, changes to the TFWP, which were to take effect April 1, may help or hinder. The provisions call for a more rigorous assessment of the genuineness of a job offer, a limit on the length of time a TFW can work in Canada, and a two-year prohibition from hiring TFWs for employers who fail to meet their commitments.
But is there also a need to pare down the lists of “necessary” jobs? Are recruitment efforts involving workers here – such as recent graduates, new citizens, the unemployed and the underemployed – being exhausted before hasty requests (read: demands) are made for even more TFWs? Are there live bodies available to provide the beefed-up enforcement that history has clearly demonstrated is essential to keep everyone on the straight and narrow?
Meeting economic requirements and protecting potentially vulnerable workers need not be mutually exclusive. The proverbial (and much-maligned) win-win is within reach if minds are open, expectations are reasonable and appropriate enforcement is available.
The idea is not to have one’s cake and eat it, too, but rather to transform temporary talk into permanent solutions.
Angela Stelmakowich is editor of OHS CANADA.