Foreign workers and federal priorities

Lana Payne
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It is a program that is rife with abuse. Its rules are regularly broken. And it was designed that way; legalized exploitation.

No one should be surprised that Canada’s temporary foreign worker program (TFWP) has been used and abused by employers to suppress the wages of Canadians. After all, the rules actually allow employers to pay migrant workers 15 per cent less than prevailing wage rates.

No one should be surprised that migrant workers are often afraid to speak out if their workplace rights are violated. Speaking out has drastic consequences for them, a return-trip home and lost wages for them and their families. This power dynamic makes them susceptible to all kinds of worker rights’ violations.

No one should be surprised that the fast-tracked, rubber-stamped application rules are now being used to kick Canadian workers out of their jobs.

And no one should be surprised that the program is seriously undermining Canada’s immigration system. The program is no longer about filling real and temporary labour shortages. The jobs are not even temporary in the vast majority of cases.

And sadly in Harper’s Canada no one is surprised. But that doesn’t make this right.

The fact is the temporary foreign worker program is a cheap-wage scheme, redesigned by the federal government to cater to employers. The same employers have an aversion to the economics of supply and demand except when it benefits them.

Last year, there were more temporary foreign workers in Canada than the entire annual intake of permanent newcomers or immigrants.

If there are labour market shortages, these mostly permanent labour requirements should be addressed with permanent newcomers. But that’s not what is happening. Instead, under the Harper Conservatives, a permanent underclass of workers is being created and used as pawns to undercut wages for everyone else. With unemployment high in many regions and cities of Canada, a valid question is: are these real labour shortages or just wage shortages?

Migrant workers are not to blame. Indeed they deserve our understanding and laws that protect their human rights.

The temporary foreign worker program is not just flawed, it is a complete failure — unless, of course, your objective is to drive down prevailing wages and create a more precarious job market. If that is the case, the program is wildly successful.

The Harper Conservatives say they are finally reviewing the program, but only after a series of high-profile cases hit the front news pages and riled a good portion of their political base.

Yet the problems with the giant loopholes in program are not new. They have been voiced repeatedly and for years. Labour and migrant worker groups have been quite outspoken about the deeply-flawed TFWP, and that was before the Harper government’s new rules that made it even easier for employers to avail of foreign workers.

Under the current rules, employers are still supposed to first attempt to hire or train available Canadians or permanent residents before availing of the temporary foreign worker program.

But the lack of real monitoring and repeated abuses prove that the federal government isn’t too concerned if employers are playing by the rules.

The size of the migrant workforce in Canada has tripled in the last decade. In our own province, the number of temporary foreign workers has doubled since 2007 from about 880 to over 1,800 in 2012.

In Alberta, where employers have been keen to drive down wages, there are over 100,000 unemployed workers and yet there are over 84,000 temporary foreign workers.

The problems with the program were exposed recently when one of Canada’s big banks attempted to replace 45 of their workers with temporary foreign workers. The salt in the wound? RBC wanted the workers to train in their own replacements.

In British Columbia, a Chinese mining company wanted to hire only Chinese workers brought in through the TFWP, listing as one of the requirements to work in the northern B.C. mine that the miners speak Mandarin.

Paying the price

Normally the rules of supply and demand would dictate higher wages, workplace training and/or upskilling to meet labour market needs. In a bizarre twist, employers have demanded the government intervene to help them suppress prevailing wage rates and increase the growing precariousness of Canada’s job market.

That intervention has been in the form of the temporary foreign worker program that is no longer about filling labour shortages. It has resulted in other forms of intervention too, including changes to employment insurance, Old Age Security, the federal fair wage act and collective bargaining.

At a time when corporate profits continue to soar, when corporate Canada sits on more than a half a trillion dollars in cash, you have to wonder why the government doesn’t stand up for Canadians and their ability to earn a decent wage.

Unfortunately, the government instead continues to support a system where the rules are broken every day. And just as unfortunate, no one is surprised that this government would do so.

Lana Payne is president of the

Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by email


Her column returns May 4.

Organizations: TFWP, Harper Conservatives, RBC Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour

Geographic location: Canada, Alberta, British Columbia Northern B.C.

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Recent comments

  • Herb Morrison
    April 25, 2013 - 10:54

    Within the context of this particular situation, it is unfortunate that those individuals or companies , who apparently have a good business sense, apparently don't have an equivalent sense of ethical standards to match. The idea that just because unskilled Canadians are unwilling to work for minium wage, at jobs where thay are required to work like slaves or be tossed out like yesterdays garbage is not a black mark against unskilled workers. Rather this situation is a black mark, and rightfully so, against employers, whose on;ly concern, at the end of the day, is their "Bottom Line." The merchants making their fortunes on the backs of the poor. Now where have Newfooundlanders and Labradorians heard that beforew? When the merchants made their money on the backs of outport fishermen and the women who toiled on the flakes, recieving a pittance for their labour this practice was considered to be unethical by later generations. Now we have the same type of exploitation taking place within a contemporary context, and the business people involved, instead of taking responsibility for being the archetects of this situationj, are attempting to portray themselves as victims. What's wrong with this picture?

  • Ed Power
    April 25, 2013 - 10:44

    OK, "A Business Man" , it's time to put away your Monopoly Board and go to bed now.

  • Forward Thinker
    April 21, 2013 - 17:16

    Lee. While what you say may be true in your case, I am aware of Canadians working in the fast food industry losing thier jobs because McDonalds brought in TFWs at 15% less. The owner was not even trying to hide what he was doing. He bragged about it. My teenages are finding it hard to find work because all fast food places are using TFWs. It is not a shortage of workers. I used to see seniors working in these places, but no more. You may be the exception, but this program is being used to increase profit and nothing more. Then the TFWs take most of thier wages home with them leaving little to help stimulate our economy. Shoddy. Very shoddy.

    • a business man
      April 24, 2013 - 11:53

      Honestly, I use TFWs at my fast food establishments. I have been doing this for years, well before the TFW program was such a heated topic. Frankly, I would choose a TFW over a local teenager because the TFW would look at this job as a career, as their livelihood, whereas this would be just a part-time or summer job for your teenager. Accordingly, I expect the TFW to simply care more and try harder. Same with the seniors...many work just to pass time or to interact with people, and again, they are just looking for enough to supplement their CPP. The TFWs on the other hand, they work hard, put in 100% and are happy with the wage. PLUS, paying them 15% less is the most important part, because it puts money in my pocket. At the end of the day, I invested in fast food operations for the sole purpose of making easy money on the side without doing anything. The TFW program gives me as a franchise owner a way to make more money, so I fully support it. Locals seem to think that they automatically deserve more than the minimum wage when their skills and experience suggests otherwise. Without the TFW program, I would have a rotating door of workers who do not care about their job and who are unhappy with the wage. That cannot work in fast food. That said, in my call center, my business is staffed with locals who do not care about their job and who are unhappy with the wage, but that model works fine in the call center industry. SO I do not use TFWs for the call center. But that model does not work for fast food, so I use TFW's for fast food. And regarding what they do with their money and where they send it, I really could care less. As long as I end up with more money, I have no concern with what they do with their money. It is theirs, they earned it fair and square, who are you to tell them where to spend their earnings? It seems you are the selfish one, only thinking about your teenager and how to restrict people from spending their own money as they see it. Maybe you should open a fast food franchise, hire some TFWs and make some money. I am cashing in on this program, and I encourage you to do so to. I plan to open another restaurant in Ontario, because there already is data that justified bringing in TFWs. At the end of the day, I am not interested in stimulating OUR economy; I am solely focused on stimulating MY economy, which begins and ends with may bank account. Everything else is irrelevant.

  • Ed Power
    April 21, 2013 - 17:01

    Where will the labour go, Lee? If business and industry need the oil, minerals or other resources that we have, they can't pick it up and move it. I suppose they can take their chances in countries such as those in Central Asia, or even Russia itself, where the costs they save by exploiting their workers - and not being burdened by taxes, industrial standards, health and safety standards and environmental regulations - are offset by the multiple bribes they pay to various officials to be allowed to operate in their jurisdiction. Bribes and kickbacks paid so they may hope to avoid having their assests seized by those same officials who decide that they want to go into business for themselves. Even China is being forced to crack down on illegal business practices and pay decent wages by their growing middle class workers, so it isn't likely that business will find any further safe haven there. Multinational corporations have already been chased out of much of South and Central America since many have overthrown their corporately-sponsored miltitary dictatorships. Those companies that remain find they now have to follow the laws and not ignore them.Taiwan, Singapore, The Phillipines, Indonesia and South Korea have all replaced corrupt dictatorships with democratic governments, Burma just did the same. Good luck finding a welcoming government in the Middle East after seven decades of US exploitation and occupation. Where else can business go if it wishes to operate in the manner to which it feels entitled? Africa, I suppose is an option, but if you think Uzbekistan was corrupt just wait until you open shop in Zimbabwe. If the corporate sector were to start paying decent wages and act like good corporate citizens at home, they could avoid many of the problems that they themselves have created. In closing, I have no problem with foreign workers being used in industries where most people prefer not to work. I do object to corporations importing foreign workers at slave wages - and with government consent - to replace Canadian workers, depress Canadian wages and fatten their already obese bottom lines.

  • Lee Eddy
    April 20, 2013 - 10:08

    I have a company in the agriculture field I would like to know where all these Canadian unemployed honest individuals are. I truly believe and have seen when foreign workers come to smaller communities these communities benefit as these are people who take jobs Canadians will not. My own belief is that we do not have the population in this country to adquately supply labour to mining(oil) forestry, agriculture and tourism at the same time. If we want long term sustained economic growth we need to increase our domestic demand and we can do this by increasing our population with workers from other countries. The founders of our country saw this. In reality the majority of us are foreign workers in Canada. I would really like to see what the economic benefits of foreign workers in smaller communities are, which I assume are positive. I have had a foreign worker and he was paid more and supervised the Canadians because he earned it. I believe the government's role should be ensure these workers are not abused. If Canada cannot supply the labor investment will move out and who will labour blame then. Be very careful what you ask for as you may get it.

  • Derek Merritt
    April 20, 2013 - 10:08

    The race to the bottom continues.