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Opinion: Ripping off vulnerable foreign workers




Gil McGowan

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Edmonton Journal

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Last year, provincial inspectors conducted 133 initial investigations and 66 followup investigations of Alberta workplaces where temporary foreign workers were employed.

These investigations uncovered hundreds of thousands of dollars that had been withheld from workers, stemming from unpaid hours, unpaid vacation time, hourly wages below the minimum wage, and theft of overtime.

According to the government’s summary of its investigations, the amount of money withheld added up to a combined total of $443,401.

The statistics show that contraventions of Alberta’s Employment Standards Code are more likely to be found at workplaces that employ temporary foreign workers than those that do not.

In 33 per cent of the 2012-13 cases involving complaints against employers with no temporary foreign workers, a contravention was found. The non-compliance rate jumps to 47 per cent when it comes to complaints against employers where temporary foreign workers were present.

These investigations may only scratch the surface.

Federal Citizenship and Immigration statistics show there were more than 68,000 temporary foreign workers in the province in 2012, working at tens of thousands of workplaces.

It’s clear that Alberta needs to resume more aggressive and proactive investigations of work sites, a practice the government quietly discontinued a few years ago.

From 2009 to 2011, provincial investigators randomly selected employers who had brought in workers under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, and did spot checks. This was a good program, a solid start, and it did a lot of good for vulnerable low-wage workers from overseas.

Over the two years that proactive investigations were conducted, investigators found millions of dollars in wages that employers had held back. Government statistics indicated that in workplaces with temporary foreign workers, more than half of the employers were not following the rules.

The provincial Human Services department started with a goal of conducting 360 investigations per year, but that target was quietly dropped. And then the spot checks stopped altogether. Since then, investigations have only been initiated in response to complaints.

Unfortunately, a complaint-based system for policing the Temporary Foreign Worker Program just doesn’t work.

Federal statistics show us that almost one in 10 of these workers has a significant language barrier, which makes it harder for them to file a complaint. As newcomers to Canada, temporary foreign workers are less likely to know their rights in this country. These workers are also more beholden to their employers for their ability to stay in Canada. For them, the results of “rocking the boat” are dire, so they rarely complain, even if they’re treated badly.

The obvious reality is that temporary foreign workers are vulnerable workers who are often unable or unwilling to defend themselves in the workplace. It is fundamentally unfair to put the burden of policing the system on these workers themselves.

The good news is that many employers are not abusing the system. They’re playing by the rules and paying their employees in accordance with the employment standards. But they’re also at an unfair competitive disadvantage to those unscrupulous employers who abuse foreign workers. Proactive inspections will ensure a fairer playing field for honest employers.

The Alberta Federation of Labour believes that the Temporary Foreign Worker Program is fundamentally flawed. Canada is a country that was built by immigrants, but this program is not about immigration; it’s about exploitation.

Workers who come to Canada should be able to participate fully in the economy, set down roots and benefit from long-term wage gains. In short, we believe that Canada needs citizens, not disposable workers.

We also believe that citizenship is the best way to empower foreign workers.

Until such time as the federal government axes the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, the provincial government should make sure that these workers are not abused and that employers who prey on this vulnerable group are identified and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

Gil McGowan is president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

© Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal

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