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Alberta hit with 800 complaints from foreign workers

Alberta hit with 800 complaints from foreign workers
Accommodation, unfair wage deductions cited
Kelly Cryderman, Calgary Herald
Published: Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Just a day before a House of Commons committee meets in Edmonton to discuss the issue of temporary foreign workers, the province revealed it has received more than 800 complaints from foreign labourers in the past 31/2 months.

The most common complaints revolve around perceived unfair wage deductions, fees charged by recruitment agencies and accommodation issues.

"They often don't know their rights, so we're working proactively to help improve that," said Jennifer Raimundo, a spokeswoman for Alberta's employment and immigration department.

Based on complaints from foreign workers to government advisory offices in Calgary and Edmonton, 85 worksites had been investigated by the end of February to make sure employment, health and safety standards were met.

No prosecutions came out of the investigations, Raimundo said, but government inspectors did collect money owed to workers and tried to educate employers about workplace standards.

"They solve the problem while they're there," Raimundo said Monday. "Most employers are very co-operative."

In the months ahead, the province will roll out a previously announced $700,000 ad blitz to inform foreign workers of their rights under Alberta labour and safety laws.

Meanwhile, in Edmonton today, the standing committee on citizenship and immigration holds one of its cross-country hearings on a number of immigration issues, including Iraqi refugees, immigration consultants, undocumented workers and temporary foreign workers.

Particularly in Western Canada, the scarcity of labour is hurting businesses, governments and the non-profit sector.

While the foreign worker program is being used as a stop-gap measure by Ottawa to deal with the issue, and workers are gaining valuable Canadian visas and employment, immigrant groups and unions have often raised ethical questions about importing Canada's workforce on a temporary basis.

Gil McGowan, head of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said the number of complaints the province has received, "shows just how dysfunctional the program is."

The temporary foreign worker program allows outsiders to work in Canada for a limited period if employers demonstrate they can't find suitable Canadian or permanent residents to fill the job.

In recent years, the number of temporary foreign workers flowing into Alberta has increased by leaps and bounds. Service Canada reports that applications for more than 100,000 foreign workers poured into federal offices in Alberta over the past 12 months.

Some stories of promised wages not materializing, over-priced or cramped housing -- forced upon workers by employers -- have emerged, although many are unwilling to come forward and speak publicly. The government has also been forced to investigate complaints of employers charging recruitment fees.

Under provincial law, employment agencies that help employers find staff are not allowed to charge recruiting fees to workers if they conduct any part of their business in Alberta.

McGowan said a lawyer hired by the federation to take temporary foreign workers' complaints in Alberta was so inundated by early requests that her office was forced to restrict its intake to Edmonton alone.

Lyle Tomie, director of Mexi-Can Labour Force, a Calgary recruitment agency, said there are a lot of "shady" recruiters out there. "You get recruiters, and or employers, that aren't obeying the rules."

Tomie said both workers and employers often come into the program with the false information or expectations.

His company tries to address these problems head-on with methods including bringing employers down to Mexico to meet workers before a contract is signed, and talking about living costs in Alberta.

"All those things so they can make an educated decision whether or not to come here. Because if they're coming to work in downtown Calgary for $9 an hour, are you going to get ahead?"

© The Calgary Herald 2008


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