Foreign workers wary of prospects
Slowing economy sees migrants facing layoffs
By Tamara Gignac
January 4, 2009
Alberta's need for temporary foreign workers to fill everything from fast-food jobs to oilsands construction contracts could be losing steam, along with the economy.
The province has for years grappled with a labour shortage — the result of a dizzying building boom coupled with a changing demographic that is seeing baby boomers preparing to retire.
The solution has been a flood of immigrants into Alberta, most of whom are living here on one-or two-year visas at the request of an employer.
Alberta is home to almost one in five of the foreign workers living in Canada — some 30,000 people–who do everything from make beds in hotels to operate machinery in Fort McMurray's oilsands.
“We've been fortunate in Alberta–but if the worldwide recession continues for any length of time, it's probably going to catch up to us,” said Alberta's Employment and Immigration Minister Hector Goudreau.
But some argue that tough economic times have already begun for companies that typically recruit temporary foreign workers, particularly the oilpatch.
Petro-Canada, Shell Canada, Suncor and most recently Norwegian oil and gas firm StatoilHydro have all scaled back or shelved construction projects in Alberta — a move that has a ripple effect on construction outfits, which are often hired foreign tradespeople.
That can't help but have an impact on the men and women coming from Mexico, the Philippines and other countries with the hopes of one day becoming permanent residents, said Alberta Federation of Labour's Gil McGowan.
McGowan is a vocal critic of Canada's 32-year-old temporary foreign worker program. He believes it keeps wages artificially low for all workers while leaving the door open for employers to exploit non-Canadians.
“Since the global economic crisis started sweeping the globe, a lot of the temporary foreign workers brought into Alberta as oilsands construction workers have lost their jobs or been sent home,” he said.
“Our sources tell us they are being sent home by the planeload.”
The experience of losing such jobs has been devastating.
Andreas Junkier and Uwe Schulz– both middle-aged carpenters–came to Calgary this year after being recruited at a job fair in their native Germany.
They put all of their belongings into storage and prepared to spend two years –the length of their visa–working in the then-sizzling construction sector.
But only two months into the job, they were told there was no more work for them and they could either go home or find someone else to hire them.
After weeks of job searching as far as Kelowna and watching what little savings they had socked away dwindle, the men had little choice but to rely on the charity of a church for food and shelter.
Disillusioned, and with little hope of finding work by the spring, Junkier and Schulz booked flights home. They are out of pocket thousands of dollars for their plane fare and moving expenses–and bewildered by the shabby treatment they say they received at the hands of their employer.
“We feel we were taken advantage of,” said Junkier. “It's very disappointing.”
Calgary immigration lawyer Michael Greene agrees there are signs the once-sizzling demand for foreign employees is waning–at least in the short term.
That has many newly transplanted workers feeling nervous about their prospects, Greene said. “There is a lot of anxiety out there. These are people that wanted to stay permanently.Some of them paid outrageous fees to recruiters and are in debt up to their eyeballs.”
He wonders if a troubled economy will also create tensions between local residents and temporary employees brought over to work during good times.
Greene pointed to the hundreds of carpenters out of work after ATCO recently lost a contract to build an oilsands camp for Petro-Canada. “If you're a carpenter on a work permit here, what are your chances of getting a renewal when 400 Canadian carpenters go on pogey?”
An employer interested in hiring foreign workers must first advertise the job to Canadians. If no Canadians apply, the employer can offer the job to a foreign recruit and then must complete a Labour Market Opinion application.
It can be a time-consuming process –and right now, some companies are having second thoughts about going through with it, said Herman Van Reekum, president of VRV Immigration Services in Calgary.
His company recruits internationally for everything from truck drivers to engineers and metal workers. “We were going to do some recruiting in Mexico, but the project got cancelled,” he said.
“Everyone's just a little bit nervous about the economy.”
However, agencies that help temporary foreign workers settle into their new homes say immigrants are still vital to filling the gaps in Alberta's labour market.
“We are still in a position of needing people to fill various jobs, and the temporary foreign worker program is likely to continue to fuel this labour market trend,” said Din Ladak, chief executive of Calgary Immigrant Services.
Diego, a 45-year-old electrical engineer from Mexico City, is counting on it. He's been working in Calgary as a cement mixer for a year and just brought his wife and two sons for an extended visit after months of isolation here.
He's fearful that an economic slump will dash his dreams of living in Canada permanently once his work visa expires in 2009.
“I want to build a better life for my children,”said Diego, who asked that his real name not be used. “But of course I'm worried.We are already seeing some work sites being closed for financial reasons.”
Provincial immigration officials say more than 180 occupations still have acute staff shortages–and there is nothing to suggest those jobs are going away.
Hugh MacDonald, the immigration critic for the Alberta Liberals, thinks the time has come for the province to take a closer look at the issue. There are just too many uncertainties for the government to continue to bring in workers, he believes, pointing to the 3,700 job losses in November in Alberta alone.
“I really don't think that we can justify keeping the program going,” said Mac-Donald. “The landed immigrants I have encountered are quite willing to work and I don't think there are going to be jobs unfilled in this province.”
Andreas Junkier (vest) and Uwe Schulz came to find a better life
Andreas Junkier (vest) and Uwe Schulz came to find a better life in Canada but now have to return to Germany after they were laid off.
Photograph by: Lorraine Hjalte, Calgary Herald