Temporary foreign workers increase in number

Alberta’s totals worry provincial Federation of Labour

Citizenship and Immigration Canada recently published data on the number of temporary foreign workers (TFWs) employed in Canada. Workers from other parts of the world are brought to Canada to respond to variations in market needs across the employment spectrum but especially in the construction sector where many construction workers and tradespeople lack the points necessary to qualify as permanent residents. Off-shore agricultural workers are another large group of such employees.

From 2003 to 2007, the number of TFWs almost doubled across Canada — from 110,476 in 2003 to 201,057 five years later in 2007. Only Newfoundland and Labrador showed a decrease. One and one-half times as many TFWs were given permission to work in Ontario and Quebec in 2007 as in 2003.

In Alberta, however, over three times as many temporary foreign workers were employed in 2007 as in 2003 (37,257 compared to 11,462).

This trend to using temporary workers is occurring while the number of new permanent residents has dropped. According to figures from Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the number of permanent residents declined over the three years from 2005 to 2007: from 262,240 in 2005 to 251,643 in 2006 and then down to 236,758 in 2007.

These numbers trouble union officials. Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), worries that “a vast underclass of disposable workers” is being created. Unlike former times, the vast majority “will never become citizens, although they come to Canada with that goal,” he says. All too often, according to McGowan, they are the victims of unscrupulous brokers and employers. The deaths of two Chinese temporary workers and the injury of four others at a Fort McMurray construction site last year made headlines; in addition, according to a report in the Edmonton Journal, it appears that the workers were not receiving their full salary.

A spokesperson for Merit Contractors Assn., an Alberta-based open-shop association of about 1,200 construction companies, said that although there have been reports of problems, they are isolated cases and the problem has been overblown.

Nevertheless, in response to a report on TFWs published by the AFL last November, the Alberta government set up a team of inspectors as well as two special advisory offices in Edmonton and Calgary to ensure TFWs are being fairly treated, especially in relation to health and safety issues and employment standards concerns.

In Manitoba, meanwhile, 60 migrant farm workers at a farm in Portage La Prairie ratified a three-year agreement, the first of its kind in Canada, after the Manitoba Labour Board certified the United Food and Commercial Workers to represent the mostly Mexican temporary farm workers.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada reports are found at: http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/resources/statistics/facts2007/06.asp.

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