Will new rules protect both Canadians and temporary labour?
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MONTREAL - Anyone who’s been to downtown St-Rémi on a Thursday night in the summer has seen how the population swells with labourers from Mexico and Guatemala, hired to pick the fruits and vegetables — a job that most Quebecers won’t do.
Even the grocery clerks at the local IGA in this town south of Montreal are learning Spanish.
But seasonal agricultural workers now account for only one-third of all temporary foreign workers brought to Canada every year, and less than half of those hired in Quebec.
Between June 2010 and June 2012, some 3,345 Quebec companies received authorization from the federal government to hire temporary foreign workers (TFWs). And while the list includes farms and greenhouses, it also holds many surprises: schools, hospitals, diners, bakeries, retail stores, dépanneurs, mechanics, soccer clubs, daycares, hotels and banks — just to name a few.
For the federal government, the TFW program is a means to fill acute labour shortages and allow companies to survive and grow even if they can’t find local workers willing and/or able to do the job.
But as the program has ballooned over the last decade — the number of TFWs living in Canada grew 197 per cent from 2002 to 2011 — it has also come under scrutiny as critics say it leapfrogs over Canadian workers and leaves foreign workers vulnerable to abuse.
Last month, employees at the Royal Bank of Canada revealed they had been training workers from India who would then take over their 45 jobs at the bank’s Investor Services department. Allegations then followed that other banks were doing the same.
On Monday, the federal government responded with a set of reforms aimed at making the program harder to abuse. TFWs can no longer be paid 15 per cent less for the same work than Canadian workers, taking away the incentive to favour foreign workers. The federal government has also shelved the accelerated process for authorization, and said companies wanting to hire foreign workers will have to try harder to find suitable Canadian workers first. It plans on raising the fee for a work permit, currently at $150.
A previous reform to the program in 2011 also created a blacklist for employers who had not used the program as intended (although as of Wednesday, no companies were listed) and in 2012 the government said strip clubs, escort services and massage parlours would no longer be eligible to hire TFWs, because of the risk of sexual exploitation.
The question is whether these cumulative reforms will be sufficient to protect Canadians’ jobs while allowing foreign workers to do decent work for decent pay.
According to the latest statistics from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, 15,415 TFWs were hired by Quebec companies in 2012, up slightly from 2011.
The employers include many household names — from Bombardier and Aveos to Saputo and Ubisoft, whose Montreal office employs people from 55 nationalities. (Its video games begin with the disclaimer: “This game was developed by a multicultural team of various religions and beliefs.”)
The list of companies authorized to hire foreign workers, first obtained by the Globe and Mail through access-to-information legislation, does not say how many workers were hired by each company, or why they were needed.
There are many good reasons to hire from abroad. The Commission scolaire de Montréal, for example, couldn’t find any available speech therapists in Quebec, so it hired a few from Belgium.
A McDonalds in Sept-Îles last year hired Filipinos when it couldn’t find Quebecers to staff the restaurant — locals preferred more lucrative mining jobs. The problem was that the Filipino workers didn’t speak French.
And a daycare in St-Jérôme hired a Cuban woman to care for the children and teach them Spanish.
“I tried to get someone who spoke Spanish here in the region first, but I couldn’t find anyone,” said Sarah Humayun, the owner of Garderie l’Uni Vert. “So (the Cuban woman) came for 10 months, then she went back, now she’s working here again. ... It’s hard for Cubans to immigrate any other way.”
In St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, meanwhile, Chez Cora franchise owner Bruno Plante asked the federal government for authorization through a “Labour Market Opinion” to hire a Frenchman to cook breakfasts.
“At first I was refused — they said plenty of Quebecers can do the same job, and I said, ‘Yes, but they don’t want to,’ ” Plante said, adding that the turnover rate in the restaurant business is very high. He recently sent out 75 T-4 slips for five jobs in the kitchen.
Workers in Quebec don’t want to work for minimum wage — which went up to $10.15 on Wednesday — and they don’t want to put their “heart and soul” into their work, Plante continued. “They won’t mop floors, they won’t do dishes. I got CVs and people came in — but for what I was asking they wanted $20 an hour. This isn’t the Ritz-Carlton — it’s Chez Cora! It’s cooking bacon and eggs!”
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But while some fret for Canadians, as the unemployment rate in Quebec hovers near nine per cent, advocates for foreign workers say the new reforms do not protect them from abuse.
Loly Rico, president of the Canadian Council for Refugees, welcomed the announcement that TFWs will no longer be paid 15 per cent less than their Canadian counterparts. But she said that does not address the rights abuses suffered by migrant workers, who are vulnerable to exploitation because of their precarious status.
“The Canadian Council for Refugees has deep concerns over the government’s approach to migrant workers as disposable, short-term labour with fewer rights and protections than Canadian workers.”
The problem, says Mostafa Henaway of the Immigrant Workers Centre in Montreal, is that TFWs have a “closed” work visa — which means they are tied to their employer. They can’t look for another job if they find the conditions or pay are not as advertised. The employer can threaten to send them back home. He cites the example of five Bangladeshi workers hired by an Indian restaurant in Longueuil, who were paid $200 a week for 40 to 50 hours of work, and of a group of 10 Tunisian welders hired by a company in Plessisville, northeast of Montreal. When three of them were let go in March after being there for only three months, they could not get employment insurance, and they can only stay if they find another company that can apply, successfully, to hire them within 90 days.
Loïc Malhaire, who’s doing his doctorate at the Université de Montréal on immigrants and the working poor, and also volunteers with the Immigrant Workers Centre, says the foreign worker program is based on the false premise that the shortages are temporary.
“The shortages are permanent, so why make them ‘temporary workers’?” he asked. “It’s about changing immigration policies. We don’t want citizens, just cheap and docile labour.”
By keeping foreign workers “temporary,” Malhaire said, with little or no possibility of obtaining permanent residence, the government has created a situation where wages are pushed down — for Canadians and foreigners alike.
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Agriculture and horticulture workers, Sales and service occupations - general, Food counter attendants, kitchen helpers and related support occupations, and Nursery and greenhouse workers
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Policy analysis and Statistics on work and life conditions
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Quebec, Federal, and National relevance