Documenting the exploitation of Saskatchewan’s foreign workers

A RankandFile.ca series on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program

By Andrew Stevens

April 30, 2014

This week, more damning evidence regarding the scandal plagued Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) went public. The Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (SFL) posted details on Facebook and Twitter showing how a Filipino foreign worker was required to compensate a recruitment agency for an entry level placement in the foodservice industry. As the commentary reads,

hubitch cheque

This is a scanned copy of a cheque from a Temporary Foreign Worker drawn on the Bank of the Philippine Islands paid to a recruitment agency in the amount of $217,000 Philippine Pesos. (equivalent at the time to $5,000 US).

This cheque was a down payment from the worker to the recruitment agency for placement in a entry level job (food counter attendant) at a fast food joint in a small Saskatchewan city. The total amount paid by the TFW was $6,000 US, and I have a copy of the receipt for the additional $41,270 Philippine Pesos.

I have redacted the parts that could potentially identify this individual to protect their privacy. I was advised that all of the other TFWs in this particular burger joint used the same agency and there were more than 10 of them employed.

Somebody is getting rich off the backs of the Temporary Foreign Workers, and it isn’t them.

SFL President, Larry Hubich, who spoke with RankandFile.ca, met with the worker and her family about the work experience in a Southern Saskatchewan town, where the fast food employer is located. Hubich reflected that such payments are commonly understood by temporary foreign workers as the usual cost of doing business. In this case, the cost of a position paying just $11 an hour in Canada exceeds $5,400, twice the average annual income in the Philippines.

But was the employer aware of this transaction and the terms of agreement established between the worker and the immigration agency, Domain Development Corporation? Hubich suggests they did. According to Saskatchewan’s Foreign Worker Recruitment and Immigration Services Act, “No immigration consultant, foreign worker recruiter or employer shall, directly or indirectly, charge a fee or expense to a foreign worker for employment”. All costs of recruitment, by law, are the responsibility of employers using the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. And while individual recruiters are obligated to hold a valid licence and post a $20,000 financial security in order to provide foreign worker recruiting services to foreign nationals coming to Saskatchewan, there is little certainty that TFWs abroad are aware of such regulations. Nor can it be expected of foreign workers, prior to entering Canada, to know that a list of legitimate agencies is maintained on a government website.

Isolated incident or systemic problem?

In a letter to Kent Smith-Windsor, Executive Director of the Greater Saskatoon Chamber of Commerce, Saskatchewan’s Minister of the Economy, Bill Boyd indicated that since 2008, there have been approximately 200 “program integrity cases” involving the mistreatment of both skilled and unskilled foreign workers. (By comparison, the province’s Labour Standards Division initiated 61 prosecutions for violations of labour standards.) In seventy of these cases, the primary concern was directed at third party representatives, such as immigration consultants and recruiters. Consequently, “several” of these “representatives” have been suspended from using the Saskatchewan Immigrant Nominee Program (SINP), which facilitates the recruitment, nomination, and processing of new Canadians to the province. Violations, in these instances, included:

  • Foreign workers paying the cost of their recruitment, which should be paid by their employer;

  • Workers having recruitment costs recouped from them by their employer after they begin work;

  • Workers being forced to use a particular immigration consultant by their employer rather than submit their application themselves or find a cheaper alternative

  • Workers paying fees without knowing what services are being provided or the status of their immigration and job applications;

  • Submitting false job offers on behalf of applicants

Despite recognition that the provincial government, and the Program Integrity Unit tasked with enforcing the terms of SINP and Foreign Worker Act are committed to ensuring the fair (and legal) treatment of foreign workers, the Minister made it clear that the government has no intent to publish the names of businesses or third parties who breach the law. “There are no plans to publish banned recruiters or immigration consultants”, Boyd wrote. “However, they will be removed from the list of licensees.” This discrete measure of dealing with nefarious recruiters and consultants persists even as the Minister acknowledges that the desire to build a better life in Canada leaves foreign workers “at risk of being exploited or mistreated while immigrating or being recruited to work here.” Employers who violate the province’s Labour Standards Act, meanwhile, are named on-line, so why the double standard?

Is there a solution?

To its credit, the Canadian media has played an important role in giving a human face to the abuse and scandal that increasingly defines the foreign worker program. But to what end? Jason Kenney’s decision to suspend the food services sector from the TFWP in the face of a powerful pro-business lobby has merely put on hold the sweeping problems associated with the globalized recruitment of labour, now a fixture of the food service industry. Less is said about the growing addiction to low-wage employment throughout Canada’s food and retail service sector. In Saskatchewan alone, average weekly earnings for workers in accommodation and food services dropped by 1.3% between 2012 and 2013 just as employment in the industries grew by 1.9%. Twenty-seven percent of TFWs in the province work in this sector.

Framing the problem as “abuse” by employers also overshadows systematic dismantling of employment and labour relations standards across Canada. Should it be any surprise that the federal Conservatives have created conditions in which employers are enabled to look globally for workers, with minimal expense? The relative inexpensiveness of our TFWP allows a growing number of employers to make foreign, low-wage workers a fixture of their business model, as Dominique M. Gross recently suggested in her C.D. Howe Institute report.

Here, organized labour is at an important juncture. Is this about a “Canadians first” strategy that boycotts violators of the Foreign Worker Program? Or is this an opportunity to develop a pro-immigration framework that positions unions and respective federations as advocates for and representatives of foreign and citizen workers?

Follow RankandFile.ca’s series on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program for further coverage and analysis.

 

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