I'd echo Jim's welcome to Edmonton.
I have been working with temporary foreign workers on a regular basis for the last two years, both as a volunteer lawyer for the Edmonton Community Legal Centre and, for the last year, as a temporary foreign worker advisor paid for by the Alberta Federation of Labour. My work is with the people who are coming here as temporary foreign workers; they are not the agriculture workers or the domestic live-in care workers.
There are three comments I would like to make right off the bat.
The first is that my conclusion is that the temporary foreign worker program is inherently exploitative. We are saying to people, “We just want your work; you are disposable. As soon as we don't want your work, you leave. Your rights and liberties in this country are tied only to that.”
That's not the way I think Canadians see their society as working. I think the very inherently exploitative nature of this program has to be examined.
The second thing I want to comment on is that of the hundreds and hundreds of temporary foreign workers I have dealt with over the last two years, almost all have come here not to work temporarily but to immigrate to this country. Because our immigration system is so dysfunctional, the only way we can bring people into this country and the only way they can come here is as temporary foreign workers.
It becomes even more tragic. Treating these people as disposable workers means we are treating our future immigrants badly. If you don't think our reputation as a country is suffering back in their countries of India, eastern Europe, and Latin America, and all those countries, I can assure you our reputation has suffered a great deal over the last two years, directly as a result of this temporary foreign worker program.
My third comment is that I'm completely appalled at the growing problem of undocumented--I'll call them--illegal workers. The whole temporary foreign worker program is so bureaucratized that in effect it forces people to go underground. Either they come here to find there are no jobs for them or they find themselves in untenable situations, and their only choice to stay alive is to work underground. That has created a huge social problem.
I don't think we have a clue as to how great this problem is. I think there are thousands and thousands of undocumented workers in Alberta alone. There's no system by which we can try to legitimize their presence here, to try to enforce.... The biggest problem I have is that I've got undocumented workers who want to have legitimate status here. We need them--we need them desperately--and there's no way of addressing that.
I go to Immigration, and they say, “Sorry, maybe we'll let them stay, but maybe we're going to deport them.” The workers have no choice then, or they feel as though they don't have a choice. In the meantime, the brokers who brought them here and the employers who are exploiting them are running around unchecked, because those workers can't deal with the problem in an upfront manner.
Those three are I think critical issues.
The problems with the program don't extend just to the low-skilled workers; they extend to the skilled workers. I can't begin to tell you how many welders I have helped out who have been dumped by their companies, companies you may hear from. They're laid off; the companies claim they're just not competent to work as welders in Alberta, yet subsequent employers I have found have said these guys are great, they're wonderful, they work well. We have no protections for those people. These are welders we desperately need, yet there's very little protection for them.
The exploitation that I have come across takes many forms. Housing is one. I have had many workers living in houses of anywhere from 10 to 14 people, being charged anywhere from $300 to $500 each. There are brokers and employers making huge sums of money in renting out housing to their foreign workers. Isn't that nice?
Wages are another big problem. Let me give you an example. A worker at a fast-food restaurant phoned me up and said, “My employer says I don't get overtime because I'm a temporary foreign worker.” That is, again, unfortunately not uncommon. There are people—welders and machinists—getting paid $15 an hour, usually because they are not legally working. There is a huge exploitation there.
Concerning occupational health and safety, one of the workers I worked with almost lost his eye because the employer handed him a chainsaw and said, “You pull this cord and you go and use it.” Thirty-six stitches later, one half inch from his eye...that kind of story is, again, not uncommon.
Finally, in regard to deductions from wages, employers are charging employees for recruitment costs: “Well, it cost us money to find you in El Salvador, so you owe us $4,000.” What is far more common is the huge number of brokers in Alberta who are having a field day.
I call them brokers; they're employment agencies or recruiters. There are some legitimate people who are doing a good job. There are many more, unfortunately, who are exploiting workers. They're charging workers to come here.
For example, Fijian cooks working in the hotel industry are being told, “Hey, you can come to Canada and make $12 an hour.” For them, that's a huge amount of money, because they're making $2 an hour in Fiji. So when the broker says to them, “We'll just charge you $6,000,” they're thinking they're going to be rich, so that's okay. They come here only to find themselves on the wrong side of the poverty line and to find that the agent is legally not entitled to charge them.
I talked to an employer one day who went to a government seminar on temporary foreign workers, and they explained that charging recruitment fees is illegal in Alberta. The broker said, “Hey, I can get you cooks for nothing.” The employer said, “Haven't you just heard? It's illegal.” “Well,” the broker said, “they'll never find me. Are you kidding? They'll never catch up with me.”
Most of the provinces in Canada don't make it illegal to charge foreign workers recruitment fees. The bureaucracy is completely out of control for temporary foreign workers. It's taking eight months to get a labour market opinion in Alberta.
Quite frankly, I'm not terribly sympathetic to most employers, but for the employees who I'm trying to help get a new job, what are they supposed to do? I'm supposed to try to find an employer with a labour market opinion, and it takes eight months to get one? I don't think so.
The problem is that if you have a temporary foreign worker with a problem, there is no legitimized way in which we can help those people out. I have to call in favours, I have to beg, that kind of thing.