Increase of Migrant Workers in Canada Opens Door to Abuses
By Am Johal, IPS News. Posted July 31, 2008.
Canada's construction boom has brought in thousands of foreign workers. They're being horribly exploited.
VANCOUVER, Jul 15 (IPS) -- Western Canada's construction boom, spurred on by the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and oil sands development in Alberta, has led to a massive increase in foreign temporary workers coming to the region.
The government agency Statistics Canada reports that for the 12-month period ending in March, international migration was the main factor driving population growth in Alberta, making it the fastest growing province in Canada.
Local governments have increased temporary work visas to deal with demand, but also have been criticized by labor unions for not addressing structural issues such as the exploitative relationships which result often between employers and foreign workers.
It currently takes two years before a foreign worker can obtain landed immigrant status, forcing some to work in less than ideal working conditions in order to obtain the permit which can lead to eventual citizenship.
There are now 2,000 to 3,000 temporary workers and thousands more in the underground economy in British Columbia (BC), according to Joe Barrett with the BC and Yukon Building Trades Council. Growth in BC's construction sector has increased from 80,000 jobs in 2001 to 140,000 today. Most migrant workers are employed in residential construction. Others are involved in industrial construction in Alberta, mostly associated with the northern tar sands project.
"If the employer commits abuses, workers are unlikely to complain," Barrett told IPS. "Dismissal from the job and other retaliation for complaints mean the worker is left without any legal means to earn income. The TFW (temporary foreign worker) cannot legally cross the street and find a new job. The process to change the work permit to a new employer will take months. The work permit is the single largest disincentive to lodge a complaint."
Additional issues include failure to pay the promised level of wages, garnishing of wages to pay placement agencies, and the deduction of fees for accommodations. Employers also usually do not cover the cost of airfare and travel expenses from the home country, despite being required to do so under the law, he said.
The BC Building Trades Council has intervened in labor rights issues involving foreign workers several times. The most high-profile incident occurred in June 2006 and involved 40 Latin American workers from Costa Rica, Colombia and Ecuador. They were working on the Skytrain rapid transit extension between downtown Vancouver and the airport, a project being completed in preparation for the 2010 Olympics.
The temporary foreign workers were only being paid five dollars per hour despite the going rate of 22-29 dollars per hour plus benefits. The employer did eventually raise the wages to 14 dollars per hour. They have now returned home.