Canadians who rallied against the irresponsible expansion of TFW program under Harper Conservatives should take a victory lap

But much more work needs to be done to protect jobs and wages, especially in Alberta

The Harper government’s changes to the controversial Temporary Foreign Worker program can be divided into three categories, says the Alberta Federation of Labour: the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Good

The AFL has been lobbying for a “Sunshine List” of employers who use the TFW program, so that Canadians can get a clear picture about how, where and when the program is being used by employers. Employment Minister Jason Kenney has promised to publish such a list. The list will include the names of employers using TFWs and the number of TFWs working for each employer. This is good news. The AFL hopes the list will also include information about the work that TFWs have been assigned and how much they’re being paid.

The AFL has been calling on the government to scrap the TFW program entirely, especially the low-wage stream. Kenney has refused to go that far, but he says that the number of TFWs that employers can hire will now be tied to regional unemployment rates and that caps will be placed on the number of TFWs that any one employer can hire. Specifically, employers in the low-wage service sector will only be allowed to access the TFW program if regional unemployment rates are under 6 percent. Even then, TFWs will not be allowed to make up more than 20 percent of an employers’ workforce this year, a number that will be reduced to 10 per cent next year and thereafter. These are steps in the right direction. Up until now, it has been far too easy for employers to access the TFW program. As a result, for many employers, TFWs have become a first choice for recruitment, rather than a tool of last resort. We’ll be watching to see if this changes.

The Bad

Employment Minister Kenney is, yet again, promising to “get tough” and “crack down” on employers. He’s promising more inspections and bigger fines and penalties. But there’s two problems with these promises.

First, we’ve heard it all before. To date, no employers anywhere in the country have been fined or prosecuted for abusing the program, despite ample evidence. For example, none of the thousands of employers who broke the rules for the Accelerated Labour Market Opinion (ALMO) process were ever penalized. The same is true for companies like Pacer and Promec who admitted to using TFWs to displace Canadians ironworkers in Fort McMurray. Base on his dismal track record on enforcement, why should we believe the Minister this time?

Second, it’s great to hear that the Minister will hire new “integrity officers” to monitor the program. But will there be enough of them? And what powers will they be given? Right now, the government has no dedicated TFW inspectors (shocking, but true). If the government hires 30 or 40 of them to police employers with more than 300,000 TFWs, abuses won’t be identified. And if officers only respond to complaint, many abuses will be overlooked because vulnerable TFWs rarely file formal complaints.

The Ugly

Today’s “reforms” are as notable for what they don’t say as what they do. Most importantly, the new rules only put restrictions on the use of TFWs in the low-wage service sector; they ignore the concern that there a few viable pathways to citizenship for most TFWs; and they ignore the crucial issue of worker mobility altogether.

Service vs. Construction Sectors: The greatest abuses of the TFW program have occurred in the low-wage service sector, so it makes sense to make impose tougher rules there. However, there is also mounting evidence of problems in the construction sector. Specifically, fast-track streams of the TFW program like the so-called Alberta Occupation-Specific Pilot Project have allowed employers to hire TFWs without first offering the jobs to Canadians. That’s what happened with the ironworkers displaced by TFWs in Fort McMurray. The list of occupations subject to the pilot project includes: ironworkers, pipefitters, welders and heavy duty mechanics. These are some of the best jobs in the Canadian labour market. The government MUST stop making it so easy for employers to by-pass Canadians for these lucrative jobs. Specifically, they MUST end the Alberta Occupation-Specific Pilot project and all other fast-track streams of the TFW program that cut Canadians out.

Lack of Pathways to Citizenship: One of the biggest problems with the TFW program is that it is NOT immigration. For the vast majority of TFWs, there are few, if any, viable pathways to citizenship. As a result, the TFW program has created a large and growing underclass of workers who don’t have the same rights as other worker in the Canadian labour market and who are particularly vulnerable to exploitations because they live in constant fear of being deported. The Canadian labour movement believes strongly that if we need workers from abroad, they should be brought into the country as citizens, not disposable guest workers. Building a labour market on disposal workers who are little more than indentured servants flies in the face of Canadian values – and it almost guarantees that those vulnerable workers will be used by employers to create low-wage job ghettos and drive down wages and conditions for everybody.

Worker Mobility: One of the big reasons that employers have been able to use TFWs as pawns to drive down wages is that they have been prohibited from quitting and seeking jobs with other employers. This explains why wages in Alberta’s low-wage service sector have remained flat, even as employers complain about labour shortage. One of the best ways to ensure that employers can’t abuse TFWs and use them to drive down wages is to give TFWs the right to say “take this job and shove it.” Minister Kenney ignored this obvious solution – and that greatly weakens his reform package.

In the end, AFL president Gil McGowan, had this to say about the TFW changes unveiled today:

“Canadians who rallied against the irresponsible expansion of the TFW program under the Harper Conservatives should take a victory lap. This is a rare example of an ideological government backing down in the face of public outrage and overwhelming evidence,” says McGowan.

“But much more work needs to be done to protect jobs and wages, especially in Alberta where many low-wage employers will still be able to use TFWs as part of their business model and where employers in construction will still be able to use fast-track streams to by-pass Canadians for lucrative jobs in areas like welding, pipe-fitting and ironwork.”

Olav Rokne, Communications Director, Alberta Federation of Labour at 780.218.4351 (cell) or via e-mail