Foreign worker plan under fire
Ottawa wants to speed up employer applications
By Monte Stewart
Published: 01/25/2008 – Vol. 8, No. 2
Labour groups are denouncing Ottawa's decision to expand a temporary foreign worker program in B.C. and Alberta.
“This has nothing to do with immigration,” says B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair. “This has everything to do with exploitation.”
Federal Immigration Minister Monte Solberg is attempting to speed up employer applications for temporary foreign workers under Ottawa's expedited labour market opinion (ELMO) pilot project. Solberg has increased the number of positions eligible to 33 from 12 in the program, which is due to expire in September. A labour market opinion determines a temporary foreign worker's impact on Canada's employment market.
Stressing that they are in favour of traditional immigration, labour leaders in the two provinces say the temporary foreign worker program indentures newcomers to one employer without giving them a chance to stay in Canada permanently.
“The temporary foreign worker policy is absolutely the wrong solution – if you can call it that,” says Gordon Christie, executive secretary of the Calgary and District Labour Council.
“These folks … should be treated equally and fairly and we see the exact opposite. I think they're abused before they leave their country with broker fees and fees upfront once they get here.”
Christie adds there would be less need for temporary foreign workers if employers were willing to provide proper wages and working conditions for Canadians, and the Alberta government and private sector had a properly managed and phased-in development plan.
New positions eligible under ELMO include construction labourers, steamfitters and pipefitters, ironworkers, heavy-duty equipment operators, machinists, roofers, industrial electricians and mechanical, electrical and petroleum engineers – all coveted jobs in the booming B.C. construction and Alberta oilsands sectors.
During a recent Vancouver news conference, Solberg and B.C. Economic Development Minister Colin Hansen said ELMO will help to make a difference when it comes to meeting demand for skilled labour.
“Employers who want to hire employees under the temporary foreign worker program have been waiting far too long to receive a labour market opinion from my department,” Solberg told reporters. “In B.C. and Alberta, that process could take up to five months. Five months is a long time to be without the skills you need to do a job or run a company.”
Solberg said all 33 positions within ELMO are in high demand. The positions represent half of all applications for labour market opinions in B.C. and Alberta.
He denied that ELMO could keep wages low. “The fact is, wages are rising in this country,” said Solberg, adding pay increased an average of four per cent last year.
ELMO may expand to other provinces if it is successful in B.C. and Alberta, he added.
The B.C. Federation of Labour, which serves as an umbrella organization for unions across the province, has called for a moratorium on the temporary foreign worker program and wants the Tories to admit more people through the traditional immigration policy.
“These people come here, they get promised certain stuff in their own countries and no one makes sure they get it,” says Sinclair. “If they complain, they get sent home.”
He says there is no workplace policing program in B.C. to ensure that temporary foreign workers are working where they are supposed to, or being paid properly.
Meanwhile, the head of the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada, which helps the energy industry identify and meet its labour needs, says the expanded ELMO program should provide companies with quick access to skilled workers.
Executive director Cheryl Knight predicts oilpatch employers – especially the ones with construction projects remaining – will respond favourably to the plan.
But Knight questions Solberg's claim that the federal government will provide labour market opinions within five days rather than the current timeframe of up to five months.
“Unless they've announced more resources – i.e. more people to process the applications – I'm not so sure how it would happen.
“It's not a quick-fix thing by any stretch of the imagination,” she added. “That's why companies would rather hire skilled workers that are immediately available to them within Canada or are trained people. It's not the only source of skilled workers. It's one source.”
Knight says one concern about the ELMO program is that it requires individual companies, rather than broader industry groups, to apply for temporary foreign workers. ELMO caters mainly to medium and large companies, because many small businesses do not have sufficient human resources programs or long-term planning efforts in place.
Manley McLachlan, president of the B.C. Construction Association, says the availability of skilled workers is the biggest challenge for his group's 1,885 firms.
The expanded ELMO program is expected to help companies deal with $135 billion worth of Olympic and conventional construction projects that are now underway or in the planning stages.
“Accessing workers from offshore is one element of our available solutions (for meeting labour demand),” says McLachlan. “Expediting the process to assist employers in bringing those workers onstream is critical.”
B.C. Federation of Labour boss Sinclair says ELMO may help meet the demand for skilled labour, but the societal cost will be too high. With no policing programs in place, some newcomers may remain in the country illegally after their jobs are finished, he says. On the other hand, many may choose not to emigrate permanently because working and living conditions are poor, and they are not able to bring their families with them.
“You've got to ask yourself: 'Why are the rich countries like us stealing the skilled tradespeople from poor countries around the world?' ” adds Sinclair. “I'm sorry. I just don't think it stands the test of morality, let alone the economics.”
(Monte Stewart can be reached at email@example.com)