TORONTO May 1 Bugan Wigan could handle the hard
work packing fruit and cleaning hotel rooms, and the crushing
debt she owed recruiters who found her jobs. But a backlash
against the foreign worker program that brought her to Canada
means the clock is ticking on her ability to support her family
in the Philippines.
"I'm here six years, away from my family. I was hoping I
could bring them here. But now, we are just counting our days,"
said Wigan, 40, who currently works at McDonald's in Vancouver.
She is one of about 400,000 people who came to Canada under
the government's temporary foreign worker program, which is
designed to fill jobs for which there are no qualified Canadian
candidates. The program has been hugely popular with employers,
ballooning from 100,000 workers in 2002.
But the backlash against it has also grown as the program,
initially designed to help the booming resource industry, has
expanded to lower-skilled jobs, especially at restaurant chains
such as McDonald's Corp and Tim Hortons Inc
Last week, the Conservative government slapped a moratorium
on the food service industry hiring temporary foreign workers
after media reports said that some restaurants had turned away
qualified Canadians in favor of using foreigners to fill job
Employment Minister Jason Kenney has acknowledged some
abuses of the system and last year began tightening up the rules
for employers to participate in the program. He has promised
Caught in the middle are workers like Wigan, who harbored
dreams of using the program as a springboard to permanent
residency. While the program is explicitly designed to be
temporary, some workers have been able to use provisions that
allow for longer stays. Those loopholes appear to be closing as
the government moves to contain the backlash against the hiring
of temporary foreign workers.
WILLING TO WORK THE LATE SHIFT
Anna, a Croatian woman who did not want to use her real name
for fear the government will track her down, was devastated by
Ottawa's decision last week to impose a moratorium on restaurant
hiring of foreign temporary workers.
Armed with a university degree in agriculture and strong
English, she found work at a cafe just 10 days after arriving in
Toronto in 2012, and has worked there ever since. She now
expects to be out of a job when her permit expires in December.
"For me, it is just the worst. I came here legally, did my
part, paid my taxes, and now they don't allow me to keep going,"
said Anna, 29, blonde hair tucked up under a black fedora, as
she took a break from serving coffee and sandwiches at the busy
cafe in Toronto's fashion district.
"In Croatia, Canada is viewed as an amazing, welcoming
country, but when you come here, you encounter problems like
this," she said, tearing up when she talks about the mother she
left behind in exchange for a steady job that pays C$12
($10.93)an hour and offers a dream of a better life.
Her boss is also upset. Like many business owners, he sees
the program providing him with a hard-working, reliable
workforce less prone to quitting when something better comes
along. Workers who, as one industry group said, are willing to
work the late shift.
"Where are (Canadians) when we put an ad in the paper? Why
don't they want to come early in the morning? They are not
there," said Ali, owner of three Toronto cafes that use
temporary foreign workers. He did not want to be named for fear
of a backlash against his businesses.
As far as paying a higher wage to keep staff, Ali said it's
a nice idea "as long as I can sell my sandwiches for C$42. I
would love to pay them the highest possible."
CHEAPER, MORE DESPERATE WORKERS
With a national unemployment rate of 6.9 percent and
joblessness as low as 4.5 percent and 4.9 percent in the
provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta, many employers complain
of a shortage of skilled or willing workers, especially in the
mining and energy industries.
But youth unemployment is 13.6 percent, and critics of the
program believe the use of foreign workers in low-skilled jobs
boosts unemployment and suppresses wages. They say it gives
employers access to a cheaper, more desperate worker, ripe for
abuse and without a path to permanent residency or citizenship.
"The whole program is set up to create a class of people who
have fewer rights. The program is innately exploitative," said
Yessy Byl, a human rights worker at the Alberta Civil Liberties
Byl, who has worked as an advocate for foreign workers for
years, has heard of many kinds of abuse at the hands of Canadian
employers who prefer the reliability of foreign workers to the
whims of highly mobile Canadian workers in a strong economy.
"I don't know which story is the worst," Byl said, noting
one example of Filipino hotel workers fired when they tried to
move out of the house their employer wanted them to live in with
16 others, and another of a Mexican laborer gruesomely injured
in his first, untrained, encountered with a chainsaw.
Many unions are also scathing in their criticism of
employers who use foreign workers to avoid paying wages that
Canadians would accept.
"Why can't they pay some more money to Canadian staff if
that is their problem?" asked Joseph Maloney, vice-president at
the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers. "But they pay
minimum wages, starvation wages, so that gives them an excuse to
bring in temporary foreign workers who don't know better ... and
it's just wrong."
CALL FOR PATH TO CITIZENSHIP
Immigration lawyer Vanessa Routley, who works mostly with
employers looking for petroleum workers, doesn't buy the
argument that Canadians are being cheated out of jobs.
"I really don't think it has any basis in reality. We are
not raised to aspire to clean hotel rooms," she said.
Routley's fear now is for those foreigners who are already
in Canada, working legally but facing the expiration of their
permits. She believes many will try to stay illegally, putting
themselves at even greater risk of abuse.
"Most of them don't have much to return to, so by making it
impossible for them to stay legally, we are forcing them to go
underground, in which case the risks of being mistreated are far
more than without the protections under this program."
Migrant advocacy groups are calling for the government to
process pending work permit applications and to offer a way for
workers already in Canada to make the transition to permanent
residency, providing a lifeline to those left in the lurch.
Wigan, who says she is happy at McDonald's, holds out little
hope something will happen to allow her to stay and be reunited
in Canada with her 12-year-old son, who lives with her husband
in the Philippines.
"If I am not able to get my permanent residency, I will have
to leave in October 2015. I don't think I have any choice."
(Additional reporting by Julie Gordon in Vancouver; Editing by
Jeffrey Hodgson; and Peter Galloway)