Posted on May 29, 2009

Unwelcome Guest Workers

Gillian Steward, Toronto Star, May 26, 2009

In Alberta’s tight job market the rumour persists: some employers are hiring temporary foreign workers while shutting out Canadian applicants. “I usually work in landscaping during the summer, but my boss is bringing in Mexicans, so I am out of luck this year,” a Calgary woman told me last week.

For Yessy Byl, an Edmonton labour lawyer, the situation has gone far beyond the rumour stage. In a recently released report prepared for the Alberta Federation of Labour, she points out that the flow of imported workers continues unabated in the retail, food and hospitality sectors. Byl has also received reports that some employers are laying off permanent residents but retaining temporary workers because they don’t have to pay them as much in wages and benefits.

Temporary workers, most of them from the Philippines, Mexico, India and China have been pouring into Alberta for several years. According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, there were 57,843 temporary foreign workers in Alberta by the end of 2008, a 55 per cent jump from 2007 and more than four times the number residing here five years ago. By contrast, permanent immigration has been relatively stagnant, with fewer than 25,000 immigrants coming to Alberta last year from outside the country, only a few thousand people higher than in 2004.

Alberta is not the only the province to import workers. In raw numbers, Ontario has the highest number at 91,733. B.C. has about the same number as Alberta. Quebec has many fewer at only 26,085.

But relative to the population, Alberta has more foreign workers than any other province. When the program was focused on high-skilled occupations, the bulk of workers came from the U.S., Japan, Britain and Australia. Now most are low-skilled and find themselves working in restaurants, hotels, gas stations and cleaning operations.

Once the workers arrive, most become isolated in a subculture that affords them very little connection with the rest of society. For almost two years now, Byl has been listening to their stories in her office at the Edmonton Community Legal Clinic. But she fears that what she hears is really only the tip of the iceberg because most temporary workers don’t speak English well, are afraid to speak out, or don’t know who to contact.

What the workers tell her raises serious questions about how they are being treated. They don’t seem to be covered by the same employment and safety standards as other Canadians. Their housing and health care are often substandard. Employer contracts are routinely broken, leaving workers adrift.

Many workers are willing to put up with these travails because they are told that they have a good chance of becoming Canadian citizens. But in reality, statistics show that in Alberta only 4 per cent are invited to stay.

Now they face another problem, an ugly backlash from people who believe “foreigners” are stealing jobs. I’ve certainly heard many of those sorts of comments lately and the people making them don’t seem to distinguish between temporary workers and recent immigrants.

Byl believes that the provincial and federal governments urgently need to revamp immigration policy. “If we need more unskilled workers we should encourage them to immigrate. Otherwise we are going to create an underclass of guest workers, just as they have in Europe .&Nbsp;. . this is not what we want to do in Canada.”

Neither do we want the racial tensions, scapegoating and riots that have erupted in Europe. But that’s likely what we will get if governments and employers persist in creating a two-tier labour market.