Imported Workers Face Uncertainty

Imported workers face uncertainty

By Nicholas Keung
The Toronto Star
December 17, 2008

The sudden layoffs of 70 imported labourers at an Ontario mushroom farm this month highlights the precarious future for a growing pool of unemployed temporary foreign workers as the economy plunges into recession.

The federal program, massively expanded in the past two years, was designed to import workers on a temporary basis in response to labour shortages and an ever-changing labour market. There are now more than 300,000 temporary foreign workers in the country.

But the abrupt turmoil in the economy in recent months has immigration and labour experts worried a vast and vulnerable workforce will soon be jobless and struggling to survive as they wait for their permits to expire.

Many don't speak English well, are unaware of their labour rights, and could become further exploited in low-wage jobs or disappear underground.

Experts are calling on the government to halt the program immediately until it comes up with a contingency plan on what to do with the workers already here and facing unforeseen hardship.

'We need to take a second look at the program,' said Toronto migrant activist and lawyer Avvy Go. 'We have all these workers already here. We should take the time to sort things out before we take in more temporary workers.'

Jobless in his native Mexico for more than a year, Carlos, an air traffic control engineer, was glad to have a job picking mushrooms at a farm near Guelph at $13.50 an hour.

After 10 weeks Carlos and about 70 other temporary foreign workers here on two-year work permits was laid off by Rol-Land Farms. They were asked to leave their dormitory and pack to board a flight back to Mexico City within a week.

'We're all frustrated and disappointed because we expected to have the job for up to two years,' said Carlos, a father of two teenage children back in Guadalajara. He asked that his last name not be used as he and others who remain here look for another Canadian employer to take them on.

Rol-Land would not comment on the layoffs but said in a press release the farm is undergoing restructuring as a result of 'current economic circumstances.'

An unprecedented number of foreign workers have arrived in recent years 103,400 in 2003 to 165,198 last year. The number is expected to surpass that in 2008. Half are in technical and skilled trades, lower-skilled clerical and labour jobs, including farm workers and nannies.

To date, the federal government has not come up with a plan on what to do with temporary foreign workers in the event of a slowdown and layoffs. Nor is there an 'exit control' scheme to ensure the workers' departure when their time is up in the country.

While some critics are concerned these workers would be further exploited by employers trying to push down wages and cut costs, others worry the shrinking job market will lead to an anti-immigrant backlash.

'The pressure is on the federal government to cap the size of the temporary foreign worker program,' said University of Victoria labour law professor Judy Fudge, an expert on migrant workers and law. 'This will be a big year … testing the legitimacy of the program. How can an employer say they don't have the people to do the job?' she asked. 'If the number of foreign workers remains strong despite the slowing economy, it'd show that Canadian employers are simply addicted to low-paid workers without rights.'

Ontario may be hardest hit by job losses of all the provinces, but the once-booming Alberta economy is not immune to current economic woes.

Jose Ramos arrived in Edmonton two years ago and moved from job to job across the province as a welder until October, when he was let go by a Fort McMurray refinery.

The unemployed Filipino has a work permit valid until 2010, which will allow him to stay in Canada legally until then.

'I'm having a hard time finding a job. I know of other foreign workers being laid off in the last couple of months. When the jobs are gone, we're the first to go,' lamented Ramos, 61, who has worked in Europe, the Middle East, Russia and the United States for decades to put his five children through university.

Lawyer Yessy Byl, the Alberta Federation of Labour's former foreign worker advocate, said foreign tradespeople are the most affected in Edmonton, where at least nine construction projects have been cancelled or postponed. 'When these trades jobs are going down, it's going to have a ripple effect on other industries,' she said.

Although unemployed foreign workers are eligible for employment insurance, most have trouble accessing the benefits, immigration advocates say.

To qualify, a claimant must be readily available to work for any employer, a condition that rules out many temporary foreign workers since the majority are on a 'closed' work permit that ties them to a specific employer.