171,844 temporary foreign workers lived in Canada in 2006. This is a 122 percent rise from over a decade ago, and all signs point to even more growth. And fast. As birth rates decline and the workforce ages, Canada turns to economic migrants as a potent source of wealth, and their labour is increasingly propping up our standard of living.
In the 2007 federal budget, the government declared its intention “to create the best educated, most skilled, and most flexible workforce in the world.” Migrant workers are the underpinning of efforts to create this “flexible” workforce. But who stands to benefit from this policy? Who pays the price?
Canada’s Foreign Worker Program (FWP) has several components that include the Live-In Caregiver Program, the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, a pilot project for occupations requiring lower levels of formal training, and oil sands construction projects in Alberta. When employers claim a labour shortage within Canada to fill their jobs, the FWP enables them to import workers from other countries.
Lists of occupations and sectors that qualify for fast-tracking permits to import migrant labour were recently established by the current federal government. The 2007 federal budget allocated an additional $50.5 million over two years to ‘reduce processing delays and more effectively respond to regional labour and skill shortages’.
Among recent changes designed to facilitate Canadian employers’ access to foreign labour, employers only have to advertise for seven days before seeking a permit to hire workers from abroad as opposed to the six week period once required.
Long before the FWP was enhanced to favour employers, civil society networks have pointed out flaws in the program. Countless documented examples show how guest workers are fleeced by unscrupulous labour brokers both in Canada and the elsewhere who charge exorbitant ‘processing fees’ in exchange for work permits. Cases abound of foreign workers misled by false promises about wages and working conditions, exploited, intimidated, and threatened with deportation by some employers unless they accept terms akin to indentured servitude. Too many stories tell of foreign workers facing social and familial isolation, sickening doses of racism, and general discrimination.