Foreign Workers Exploited, Says Alberta Federation Of Labour

Foreign workers exploited says Alberta Federation of Labour

Keith Gerein,
November 29, 2007

EDMONTON – The increasing use of foreign workers to address the province's labour demands has been accompanied by increased exploitation that has now reached an “overwhelming” level, the Alberta Federation of Labour says.

Excessive rents charged by employers for substandard housing, jobs disappearing without notice, long waits for job permits and the increasing prevalence of illegal employment brokers are among the most serious problems faced by such workers, federation president Gil McGowan said.

“We are in the process of creating an underclass of disposable workers,” he said. “The temporary Foreign Worker Program, as currently constituted, is a disaster in the making, and it needs to be dramatically altered if not scrapped altogether.”

To get a handle on the issues, the federation in April created a Temporary Foreign Worker Advocate position, promising to provide an update six months into the program. That update was delivered today, with advocate appointee Yessy Byl suggesting that the problems are more widespread that initially feared.

Since she took the job, Byl has fielded more than 1,400 calls and opened 123 legal files about foreign-worker exploitation, she said.

People are victimized in different ways, Byl said. Some find that working conditions are not as promised, such as executive chefs who are turned into line cooks or dishwashers. Some are laid off a month after they arrive. Others are crammed into small houses, where they receive no privacy.

“I think 14 people in one house was the worst example I heard of,” Byl said.

Another growing problem is the rise of employment brokers, who charge foreign workers exorbitant sums of money in return for misleading promises of finding them a job. While such practices are illegal, the federation does not know of any brokers being prosecuted, she said.

Since foreign workers are often poor, speak little English and do not know Canadian laws, they are virtually powerless to prevent exploitation on their own, Byl said.

“As a Canadian, I'm embarrassed. We are dependent on people from other countries to come here and work, but then we treat them very, very badly,” she said. “These people are literally modern-day slaves in the system.”

McGowan said the Temporary Foreign Worker program was originally intended as a path of last resort, when all other options to meet labour demand had been exhausted. It was initially targeted at more professional workers – people with some clout who could protect themselves. Nowadays, the program is seen as the first choice to fill jobs, with all types of workers targeted.

As one of its key recommendations to government, the federation wants the program restored to its original mandate. Failing that, foreign workers should be brought to Canada with more protections in place. This includes allowing workers to switch jobs more easily, giving them the chance to apply for permanent immigration status without employer sponsorship, and better enforcement of labour laws.

“If these people are good enough to serve our coffee, build our homes, and build the plants the economy depends on, then they are good enough to stay here as full-time permanent residents and eventually Canadian citizens,” McGowan said.

A provincial government spokesman could not be reached for comment.