Foreign Workers in Canada Fear Backlash, Loss of Dreams

Andrea Hopkins, Reuters, May 1, 2014

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About 400,000 people came to Canada under the government’s temporary foreign worker program, which is designed to fill jobs for which there are no qualified Canadian candidates. The program has been hugely popular with employers, ballooning from 100,000 workers in 2002.

But the backlash against it has also grown as the program, initially designed to help the booming resource industry, has expanded to lower-skilled jobs, especially at restaurant chains such as McDonald’s Corp and Tim Hortons Inc.

Last week, the Conservative government slapped a moratorium on the food service industry hiring temporary foreign workers after media reports said that some restaurants had turned away qualified Canadians in favor of using foreigners to fill job openings.

Employment Minister Jason Kenney has acknowledged some abuses of the system and last year began tightening up the rules for employers to participate in the program. He has promised more changes.

{snip} While the program is explicitly designed to be temporary, some workers have been able to use provisions that allow for longer stays. Those loopholes appear to be closing as the government moves to contain the backlash against the hiring of temporary foreign workers.

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With a national unemployment rate of 6.9 percent and joblessness as low as 4.5 percent and 4.9 percent in the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta, many employers complain of a shortage of skilled or willing workers, especially in the mining and energy industries.

But youth unemployment is 13.6 percent, and critics of the program believe the use of foreign workers in low-skilled jobs boosts unemployment and suppresses wages. They say it gives employers access to a cheaper, more desperate worker, ripe for abuse and without a path to permanent residency or citizenship.

“The whole program is set up to create a class of people who have fewer rights. The program is innately exploitative,” said Yessy Byl, a human rights worker at the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre.

Byl, who has worked as an advocate for foreign workers for years, has heard of many kinds of abuse at the hands of Canadian employers who prefer the reliability of foreign workers to the whims of highly mobile Canadian workers in a strong economy.

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Migrant advocacy groups are calling for the government to process pending work permit applications and to offer a way for workers already in Canada to make the transition to permanent residency, providing a lifeline to those left in the lurch.

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