Increase of Migrant Workers in Canada Opens Door to Abuses
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VANCOUVER, Jul 15 (IPS) -- Western Canada's construction boom, spurred on by the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and oil sands development in Alberta, has led to a massive increase in foreign temporary workers coming to the region.
The government agency Statistics Canada reports that for the 12-month period ending in March, international migration was the main factor driving population growth in Alberta, making it the fastest growing province in Canada.
Local governments have increased temporary work visas to deal with demand, but also have been criticized by labor unions for not addressing structural issues such as the exploitative relationships which result often between employers and foreign workers.
It currently takes two years before a foreign worker can obtain landed immigrant status, forcing some to work in less than ideal working conditions in order to obtain the permit which can lead to eventual citizenship.
There are now 2,000 to 3,000 temporary workers and thousands more in the underground economy in British Columbia (BC), according to Joe Barrett with the BC and Yukon Building Trades Council. Growth in BC's construction sector has increased from 80,000 jobs in 2001 to 140,000 today. Most migrant workers are employed in residential construction. Others are involved in industrial construction in Alberta, mostly associated with the northern tar sands project.
"If the employer commits abuses, workers are unlikely to complain," Barrett told IPS. "Dismissal from the job and other retaliation for complaints mean the worker is left without any legal means to earn income. The TFW (temporary foreign worker) cannot legally cross the street and find a new job. The process to change the work permit to a new employer will take months. The work permit is the single largest disincentive to lodge a complaint."
Additional issues include failure to pay the promised level of wages, garnishing of wages to pay placement agencies, and the deduction of fees for accommodations. Employers also usually do not cover the cost of airfare and travel expenses from the home country, despite being required to do so under the law, he said.
The BC Building Trades Council has intervened in labor rights issues involving foreign workers several times. The most high-profile incident occurred in June 2006 and involved 40 Latin American workers from Costa Rica, Colombia and Ecuador. They were working on the Skytrain rapid transit extension between downtown Vancouver and the airport, a project being completed in preparation for the 2010 Olympics.
The temporary foreign workers were only being paid five dollars per hour despite the going rate of 22-29 dollars per hour plus benefits. The employer did eventually raise the wages to 14 dollars per hour. They have now returned home.
In another case, Mexican construction workers employed on a residential tower were promised 26 dollars per hour but paid only 18 dollars. A further 400 dollars was collected from workers as part of a "recruitment fee".
Barrett said many foreign workers are too afraid to join a union because they fear that it will compromise their status if they complain too much.
"The larger battle is brewing at the political level. Until there is government monitoring and enforcement of work permits and conditions of employment promised by employers, the abuse will continue," he said.
Boni Barcia, a vice president of the Hospital Employees Union in British Columbia, said, "This issue is getting bigger and bigger. For me, this is really challenging. First of all, when I was organizing the Skytrain workers, they were so fearful of losing their job and being sent home. Most of them know their rights, but they are willing to sacrifice their rights knowing that they can apply for landed immigrant status after two years."
Barcia added that, "Most of them want to earn money so that they can send it home, which is a substantial amount in local currency. They are also isolated and don't trust anyone. They're worried about money or money that they borrowed just to come to Canada. This is a difficult environment to organize in. Many issues are driven underground."
Filipino domestic workers, often nurses who are unable to get credentials in Canada to work in their profession, are in a particularly vulnerable situation as they live in the homes of their employers for up to two years before receiving landed immigrant status.
"I blame the labor movement for not being proactive on this early enough because it was primarily a women's issue first with domestic workers," Barcia said. "This immigration opportunity has been here mostly live-in caregivers who were Filipino women, but now it's the farm workers, hotel workers, construction, and health care workers -- it is a broader issue now. The labor movement has been complacent to address this in a broader way. This really requires an international campaign."
Barcia added that there needs to public policy reform to ensure that there is not more exploitation of foreign workers or undermining of existing rights of Canadian workers or opportunities for large corporations to bring down the cost of domestic wages.
"Abuses are happening every day. We need to concentrate on how we can help people, no matter what their status. We need to reach out to these people that they are not alone, and that the labor movement will help them fight for their own rights," said Barcia.
Am Johal is a Vancouver writer who has worked on inner-city issues and just completed a human rights internship in Israel.