Economic Woes Put Target On Foreign Staff

Economic woes put target on foreign staff

Trish Audette
Edmonton Journal
Published: Wednesday, January 07, 2009

A weakening economy is putting pressure on the government to halt a program that has brought tens of thousands of temporary foreign workers to Alberta.

“Those people are really vulnerable when the economy goes sour,” says Yessy Byl, a lawyer and advocate for the Alberta Federation of Labour.

“We're starting to see the fallout.People are getting laid off.”

The temporary foreign worker program falls under federal jurisdiction, like immigration, giving people passes to work in Canada for no more than three years.

In Alberta, the program answers a labour shortage driven by the oil boom, particularly in the energy and construction industries. The province counted 37,257 temporary foreign workers in 2007, up from 22,105 in 2006. Numbers for 2008 are not yet available, and there is no target or estimate for the number of people expected to be ushered into jobs in 2009.

“We don't forecast for temporary foreign workers because it's based on employer need,” said Alberta Employment and Immigration spokeswoman Jennifer Raimundo, noting companies have to prove to the federal government they need to go out-of-country to find suitable workers.

“Certainly, with the economic changes that are happening, we're monitoring it closely. But we're still in a labour shortage situation. We're not in a situation where we don't need people.”

But an Edmonton recruiter of temporary foreign workers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the writing is already on the wall as a global recession kicks into place.

“There are less jobs available, which has the effect of having more Canadians available,” he said–even in Alberta.

The price of oil sank at the end of last year, and companies began announcing refinery construction projects would be put on hold.

The recruiter said he does not expect it will be so easy to hire temporary foreign workers this year.

“It's a much different economy than it was six months ago.”

In a bad economy, Byl notes, short-term migrants will always be pushed out of jobs first, and they often don't understand their rights. In Ontario, a mushroom factory made headlines just before Christmas when it laid off 120 foreign and other workers, highlighting the squeeze short-term workers can find themselves in.

“It's a really vulnerable population,” said Jim Gurnett, executive director of the Mennonite Centre for Newcomers. Long a critic of the program, Gurnett wants to see the federal government stop approving companies' requests for new foreign workers and focus on helping those people already in Canada.

In June, his centre and eight other immigrant support organizations received $1.4 million from the province to assist temporary workers.Unlike immigrants, whose entry to Canada often hinges upon language proficiency, many temporary workers do not speak English, and they do not know laws governing overtime pay or other workers' rights.

“They really struggle,” Gurnett said, and many hope their short-term pass to Canada's labour market will mean they can stay forever.

“I think we are going to see a problem, potentially, of the growth of people who stay illegally.”