Misplaced blame on migrants in Temporary Foreign Worker controversy

Watch above: The Conservative government has forbidden the fast food industry from hiring any more temporary foreign workers – for now, at least.  Jennifer Tryon reports.

A sudden moratorium on Canadian fast food restaurants hiring temporary foreign labour could put the livelihoods of many migrant workers, who may already be in vulnerable situations, at risk.

And, those who advocate for migrant workers say the program’s latest controversy is helping perpetuate a belief that foreign labourers themselves are to blame for Canadians being out of work.

READ MORE: Weyburn, Sask. restaurant investigated over foreign worker program

“It’s the misuse of the program that really is the problem,” said Ken Georgetti, the executive director of the Canadian Labour Congress. “They are the victims, not the villains.

“We’ve warned that the government is setting up a divisive and dangerous situation, that will pit Canadians against migrant workers because of the perception that some of these workers are taking their jobs, not the program,” he said in a phone interview on Friday.

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Georgetti said it’s all too easy for people to point the finger at the workers, who come to Canada to support their families back in their home countries.

“You can’t blame a program. You can’t see a program and you can’t see [Employment and Social Development Minister Jason] Kenney and the other people that have made these decisions. But, you can see the worker,” he said.

The program needs to be better managed to ensure that migrant workers are filling positions that are vacant, so they’re not being used to avoid paying Canadians higher wages in low-paying jobs, he added.

READ MORE: McDonald’s involved in foreign worker fuss

Following recent stories concerning Canadian workers losing jobs and a report saying the program led to bumps in unemployment in British Columbia and Alberta – two Conservative strongholds – Kenney on Thursday announced a halt on the restaurant industry hiring migrant workers.

According to the report by the C.D. Howe Institute, a right-leaning think tank, the number of temporary foreign workers has jumped from 100,000 in 2002 to as many as 338,000 people now.

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On Thursday, Kenney temporarily banned fast food restaurants from seeking to employ more temporary foreign workers.

He also said his department will not process any new or pending applications for temporary foreign workers from the food services sector.

READ MORE: Kenney imposes partial moratorium on temporary foreign workers program

Kenney’s swift reaction in the face of growing scrutiny could also leave many people “in limbo,” according to Chris Ramsaroop of the Toronto-based Justice for Migrant Workers.

“I think we’re going to be put in a situation [where] there will be thousands of migrant workers who won’t have work,” he told Global News on Friday.

He explained it’s going to put people in a position where they will be forced to return to their home country. Some could wind up being deported, he added.

“This is not what we want for society,” he said. “We don’t want to be criminalizing people who are just coming for the active work, for putting food on [the] table.”

The Temporary Foreign Worker program has also been criticized for not looking after migrant workers and ensuring employers are not exploiting them.

READ MORE: Who hires temporary foreign workers? You’d be surprised

One of the concerns is that migrant workers in unskilled positions, such as the ones in the fast food industry, can be forced to work longer hours without being paid overtime or to pay high rents in accommodation where their employers demand they reside.

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Georgetti said a skilled worker may have the qualifications and resources — which the program was originally designed for — to pick up and leave if they’re mistreated.

But, unskilled labourers are left with little choice but to continue in situations where they’re being exploited because their visas are tied to that employer.

“If they don’t do what they’re told, they have to go home and suffer the consequences of the economy of the country they came from.”

He’d like to see the program be better managed and also allow temporary foreign workers go through the immigration program to become Canadian citizens, if they want.

“We’d like to see that happen, rather than just bring them in and use them as easy-to-access, highly-vulnerable, disposable workers,” he said.

What was good about the program, Georgetti said, has been lost in the abuse of the program.

With files from Global’s Jennifer Tryon and The Canadian Press

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