MAY-JUNE 2013

LOOK WHO'S LYING ABOUT THE TEMPORARY FOREIGN WORKER PROGRAM

By Karl Flecker

The window was broken. The stones around my young feet and the one in my hand made it clear who was the culprit. No point in denying it. That is what I remembered as I watched Tory MP Jason Kenney and Parliamentary Secretary Kellie Leitch take the stage at the National Press Theatre on Wellington Street in Ottawa, at the end of April. Both appeared determined to deny the damage their government has made to Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

It never occurred to me as a child that, when the evidence was overwhelmingly against you, stubborn refusal to accept responsibility could be an option. Not true for the Citizenship Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development. Over the course of the next hour, as they announced the government's preliminary reforms to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, neither Kenney nor Leitch took responsibility for their calculating role in super-sizing the number of migrant workers now in the country to a size
equivalent to the workforce of Nova Scotia.

Neither did they accept any responsibility for creating loopholes that benefited employers, or for reducing the already limited oversight measures, enabling the widespread abuse and exploitation of workers.

Instead, emerging fresh from what appeared to be a backstage rehearsal, Leitch offered the media this familiar frame: ". . . it is this government's intention to ensure that Canadians get the first crack at jobs." Is it just me or have you, too, heard that line repeated over and over again like the chorus of 99 bottles of beer on the wall?

No mention was made of the Harper government's 2007 invitation to employers to recruit internationally under their no-limits, no-caps Temporary Foreign Worker Program for any legally recognized occupation the world has to offer.

Kenney followed with a string of government "reforms" destined to give Canadians "first crack" at jobs. Gone immediately, he said, was the fast-track scheme that allowed employers to get a temporary work permit for migrant workers processed in just 10 business days. Gone, too, is the pay-less wage deal, which encouraged employers to pay 15 per cent less for high-skilled workers and five per cent less for low-skilled workers.

Later, he qualified that "gone" actually meant "temporarily suspended." According to Kenney, only five per cent of employers were using what can only be termed as the government's wage-suppression measure. He suggested it simply wasn't popular enough to keep on the shelves, but subsequent meetings with civil servants suggest it may make a reappearance as a new and improved wage-suppression tool in the future. Still, it's hard to believe that the more than 4,000 employees, including convenience stores, fast food chains, donut shops (112 Tim Hortons franchises and counting) and restaurants found in a 90-page document released under an Access to Information request, all of whom were claiming they needed high-skilled workers from afar to keep their doors open, were passing up on this sweet deal.

By the way, this was the small list. The Globe and Mail released a list of over 33,000 employers who, between June 2010 and June 2012, also received permission to import migrant workers to Canada.

But, if Minister Kenney says only about five per cent were taking advantage of the low-wage deal, who are we to question the validity of his statement? No matter that it can't be confirmed by an Access to Information request, because the government has already said it won't release
that information.

When Kenney was questioned by CBC journalist Terry Milewski as to why he had denied the existence of the fast-track/pay-less wage scheme in Question Period earlier that same afternoon, only a few hours before announcing its "temporary suspension," the Minister began to veer awkwardly off script. He attempted to explain how the initiative was simply not well understood, and "too complicated to explain in 30 seconds."

Fast track + pay less = wage suppression. Most people could probably say that 15 times in under half a minute. Well, it simply doesn't matter any more because it is gone, temporarily.

Additional new measures will require employers to answer, honestly, that securing a temporary work permit won't result in a member of the national workforce being displaced. That this requirement already exists under the few regulations governing the program, and is all too often just not enforced in any meaningful manner, provides no comfort for those who have lost their jobs to off-shoring, outsourcing and the growing supply of low-wage, desperate workers.

Additionally, any punitive measure that may result from a violation would be applied in the future, should that same employer attempt to access the TFWP in the future. No mention of a consequence for lying in the first place. By comparison, Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, having to pay back tens of thousands of dollars in ill-gotten benefits from their Senate appointments, are being treated more harshly.

Attempting to look tough on a mining operation that claimed a mastery of Mandarin was necessary to work in a northern B.C. mine, Kenney said employers would now be required to provide job postings that sought workers fluent in one or both of the two official languages of the country. Yet, he was linguistically silent on his government's refusal to release documents in the legal battle related to this case; documents that could expose the government's failure to follow already existing rules.

BAD BOSSES GO FREE
Right on time for another chorus of "Canadians will get the first crack at jobs," Kenney noted that employers would soon be required to present their plan for transitioning from migrant workers to members of the national workforce. No evidence was offered as to exactly how an employer's transition plan would be enforced or monitored. The track records of enforcement measures, such as the government's bad boss list (or, as it is more formally called, the "disingenuous employers" list), which has failed to list any dishonest employers since 2011,
offer zero confidence Follow-up reports from civil servants have suggested that, again, any punitive measure would likely be limited to penalizing future requests by employers to access the program if they fail to achieve their transition-plan goal. No mention was made of how the government might deal with potentially insincere employers who might well apply in the future under a different numbered company identity.

Perhaps still feeling pumped from getting new investigatory and detention powers added to our version of the Patriot Act, Kenney added that those managing the TFWP will soon have legislative authority to investigate and suspend work permits for those abusing the program.

There was no mention of what would become of the migrants workers, who are dependent on their work permit for their status in Canada, if the violation was not of their doing but, rather, their employer's. There was also no mention of how a federal civil servant in Ottawa, possibly thousands of miles away from the job site, was going to adequately investigate abuses. With only 14 staff in the ironically named "integrity" unit, there are legitimate questions that can be raised about the federal capacity to monitor a program that has grown to epic proportions.

WORKERS NOT GOOD ENOUGH TO STAY?
Nothing will be changed on behalf of the workers in the Live-in-Caregiver Program or the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program. This is, perhaps, because Canadians have not yet put enough pressure on Conservative MPs about the mistreatment of these workers on the job, or about their lack of options for applying for permanent residency. It seems that, while they are considered good enough to harvest our food and tend to our loved ones 24/7, they are not considered good enough to stay.

Not wanting to limit the opportunity for yet more reforms that might exist, Kenney said a cross-Canada consultation would also take place soon. But don't get too excited. The last consultation was by invitation only, and the invitation was sent on a Friday at 5:24 p.m., with a 72-hour time-limited RSVP window to participate in 1.5-hour consultation (lunch included), after which no minutes were made available.

Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker Program. The window still remains broken, and the stones on the ground tell the real story.

The reality is that, since coming to power in 2006, the Conservative government has systematically increased the number of temporary work visas and lessened the limited oversight of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Here is a short list of their actions:

* They reduced the requirement for employers to advertise for applicants from within Canada from six weeks to 14 days;

* They opened offices in B.C. and Alberta to fast track employer applications for migrant workers, using the so-called "Expedited Labour Market Opinion" program. Employers could access this fast lane to migrant workers for jobs that were placed on an "Occupations Under Pressure" list at the urging of employers.

* They later introduced the Accelerated Labour Market Opinion program (now "temporarily suspended") to process employer applications in as little as 10 days and allow employers to pay 15 per cent less than the median wage to all workers doing the "high-skill" job for which temporary visas were sought. The discount was five percent for "low-skill" jobs.

* They allocated more than $84 million to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to speed up employer applications in 2007, 12 times more than was allocated that year to help permanent newcomers get their credentials recognized.

* They established an Employer Advisory Group to help design and usher in the changes. The group includes the Canadian Restaurant and Food Services Association, the Canadian Tourism Human Resources Council, the Canadian Construction Association, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Canadian Trucking Alliance, and the Petroleum Services Association of Canada.

* They published a handy guide for employers to apply for permits. No similar and accessible guide has ever been developed to help workers.

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Karl Flecker is the human rights/anti-racism national director for the Canadian Labour Congress. He fessed up to breaking the windows on his uncle's garage. Our Times welcomes feedback. Send yours to Our Times' editor.

[Photo: Our Times/Lorraine Endicott]


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