The case for taking ‘temporary’ out of ‘Temporary Foreign Worker’

Temporary foreign workers sort and grade cherries at the Jealous Fruits plant near Kelowna, B.C. on August 19, 2014. John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Kristina Torres was so close.

The 26-year-old was just six months away from being eligible to apply for permanent residency in Canada.

Then she was fired. She still doesn’t know why. But she suspects that asking the mother of the autistic seven-year-old boy she looked after for better hours than the 16 a day she was working didn’t help.

Torres was out of a job. But because the Filipina live-in caregiver was a temporary foreign worker, she was also out of a work permit. And until she could convince an employer to spend the time and money needed to get her a new one, she was out of luck.

The trained nurse who’d travelled to the other side of the world to start a new life found herself living on cash her mother sent from the Philippines — a mortifying reversal of Canada’s customary remittance pattern.

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That was a year ago. Torres is still waiting for her paperwork to come through.

So, for that matter, is Torres’s prospective employer, who’s desperate for a full-time caregiver for her husband so she can go back to work.

“So both of us are stressed,” Torres said.

Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker program has drawn criticism from all sides of the political spectrum, and for all reasons — for being too broad, too restrictive, too lax, too inflexible.

Some say they’re badly needed to fill labour sector-specific shortages in some parts of the country. Others argue those labour shortages would be easy to fill if employers paid enough to make the jobs attractive.

Canada’s employers have relied on it increasingly over the past 15 years as a quick way to get labour with few long-term commitments. The total number of annual temporary foreign workers in Canada has more than tripled since 2006.

By the late 2000s, the number of people brought in on fixed short-term work visas every year eclipsed the number of people arriving in Canada annually as permanent residents.

CANADA’S NEWCOMER CONUNDRUM: Skills mismatch or labour market failure?

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The program has come under fire from labour unions who argue migrant workers steal Canadians’ jobs and workers’ rights advocates who argue the program creates a labour underclass of people who can’t leave bad jobs and who risk being fired and deported if they report abuse.

The program came under much more serious scrutiny two years ago over a dispute involving Royal Bank of Canada and its labour outsourcing partner iGate, amid allegations the bank was firing Canadian workers and hiring cheaper, temporary replacements instead.

READ MORE: Who hires temporary foreign workers?

Afterward, then-Immigration Minister Jason Kenney vowed to reform the program. The federal Conservatives’ changes include making it harder to apply for the Labour Market Impact Assessment required to hire temporary foreign workers, limited the number of temporary foreign workers certain businesses in certain industries can hire and made it more difficult to keep temporary foreign workers for longer periods of time.

But no one seems satisfied by the fixes.

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Many employers, and some labour-hungry provinces, argue there are too many restrictions, too many hoops to jump through.

Temporary foreign workers and people advocating on their behalf argue the new rules just make a Byzantine system more confusing and actually penalize vulnerable workers more, making it even more difficult for them to build long-term lives in the country where they work for eight- or 12-month stretches.

An estimated 70,000 people found themselves in limbo, scrambling for permanent residency or stopgap solutions, as their permits ran out April 1 of this year.

Even if employers are paying temporary foreign workers above minimum wage, advocates say, if employees aren’t allowed to quit, employers have no incentive to give their workers reason to stay –depressing wages and working conditions for everyone.

“Because Temporary Foreign Workers are dependent on the whims of their employers for their right to stay in Canada, they are at a disadvantage in terms of negotiating for fair wages, safe workplaces and respectful treatment,” argues the Alberta Federation of Labour, which has been a vocal critic of the program it calls a “two-tier labour market.”

Now the pressure’s greater than ever to take a deceptively simple step: Remove the “temporary” part.

“The only solution is for us to get proper status — permanent residency upon arrival,” Torres said.

“Unless we get that, employers would still try to put you in a situation where you can’t really say no. … They can still abuse us and get away with whatever, ’cause they know were temporarily here and they know we have fear of being deported.”
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A hallmark of the program is that its workers are only here for a short time. They aren’t Canadians and there’s no plan for them to become Canadians.

Faraday has studied the often treacherous labour environment for Canada’s temporary foreign workers.

“The way the labour migration system has been constructed right now, it brings workers into the country on terms that make them profoundly vulnerable to exploitation by employers,” she said.

And if workers are brave enough to report abuse and the authorities validate it, Faraday said, the employer loses the ability to employ them, they’re out of a job and possibly deported.

“Enforcing the rules actually makes the workers even more vulnerable,” Faraday said.

“Employers’ ability to have a captive workforce that is unable to enforce its rights is something that drives down conditions for everyone.”

A Statistics Canada study released last week found high-skilled temporary foreign workers — people working in management or in positions requiring at least some post-secondary education — who became permanent residents vastly out-earned their economy class immigrant counterparts, even years after both categories of newcomers had settled in Canada.

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“Landed immigrants with pre-landing Canadian skilled work experience had very large initial earnings advantage over immigrants who were selected directly from abroad,” co-author Aneta Bonikowska said in an email.

“This gap narrowed over the first few years since landing because of higher earnings growth among the latter group, but did not disappear, even 15 years later.”

This is likely due to a combination of employers selecting people they like to begin with, and people self-selecting for jobs or industries to which they’re better suited, the authors found.

The report didn’t find the same earnings advantage for low-skilled temporary foreign workers, however. This includes everyone from fast-food restaurant workers to farm workers. These, advocates argue, are the people most vulnerable and who have the hardest time obtaining any kind of stable job environment in Canada, let alone permanent resident status.

But, Bonikowska notes, a vanishingly small portion of low-skilled (or low-wage, as they’re now called by some federal departments) temporary workers gets the chance to remain in Canada.

It remains extremely difficult to do so.

Right now, the only class of so-called “low-skilled” or “low-wage” temporary foreign workers who can even apply for permanent resident status are live-in caregivers. And they can only do so after spending 24 months in precarious temp work, and after they find someone willing to pay for the paperwork required to sponsor them.

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A national Coalition for Migrant Workers Rights wants to change that by giving all Canadian workers the ability to become permanent residents and citizens, and by giving all of them the right to leave jobs they don’t like.

The coalition called on the Trudeau government to reform the temporary foreign worker program by removing the “temporary” imperative.

Ending “tied” work permits, says the coalition’s Syed Hussan, is “a pragmatic, easy, short-term change that will end bad employers ability to coerce workers, give worker the right everyone takes for granted – which is to change jobs and thereby immediately improve wages and working conditions for Canadian born and migrant workers.”

In a way it’s surprising Torres is trying so hard to forge a life in Canada: She spent a year and a half as a live-in caregiver, working 16-hour days for two different families.

She got weekends off but couldn’t stay at the families’ homes so paid to crash on someone’s couch.

Working closely with germ-sharing young children gave her an incessant cold but she felt guilty taking sick days “because nobody’s going to take over.”

But “I have not lost hope in Canada,” she says. “I learned a lot.”

And she wants to learn more: to go back to school once she saves up enough money, and study nursing or speech pathology.

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In the meantime, she waits. And volunteers at Toronto’s Caregivers Action Centre.

“If I wasn’t involved with meeting other caregivers, I don’t know how I’d make it through.”

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