Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker program is ballooning to fill the labour gap, but workers say they’re abused and poorly paid. Is that the solution we want?

The Toronto Star

Ghada Alsharif The Star Sat., Dec. 17, 2022

David Rodriguez, a 37-year-old cook from Mexico, says he was fired from a Toronto restaurant less than two months after arriving in Canada for standing up to his verbally abusive employer.

Amelia, 37, from Indonesia, says she was fired for telling her employer she was sexually abused by his father while working as a live-in caregiver in his home in Toronto.

Orel, 35, from Jamaica, says he was “treated like a slave” while employed on a farm in the Niagara region for several years, enduring 10- to 12-hour work days seven days a week for seven months straight.

Claudia, 48, from Mexico, says she was threatened with having her contract terminated when she wanted to take time off to recover from illness and see her family.

All four were granted entry to Canada through the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program, which allows Canadian employers to hire migrant workers to fill temporary jobs to address shortages in the labour force. (The Star has granted anonymity to three of the workers and given them pseudonyms as they could face repercussions for speaking publicly.)

For more than 50 years the controversial program has supplied Canadian employers with migrant workers who can be paid less than Canadian workers while often working longer hours with fewer benefits. Now, thanks to an unprecedented labour shortage that has seen the number of job vacancies in the country skyrocket to a record high of nearly one million, the program has been quietly undergoing a massive expansion.

The number of approvals to hire temporary foreign workers shot up by more than 60 per cent in the first half of 2022 over the year before, and in April the federal government loosened restrictions introduced years ago to prevent employers from abusing the program.

Under the new rules, employers across most sectors are now permitted to hire up to 20 per cent of their workforce through the low-wage stream of the program, which pays workers as little as $15 per hour. That’s double the number of workers allowed under the previous 10 per cent cap — and employers such as hotels and fast food restaurants can hire even more, up to 30 per cent of their workforce.

Economists and worker advocates are concerned about the sudden expansion. They told the Star that while the changes help farms, nurseries, restaurants and trucking companies hire more workers when labour is tight, in the process, the program is creating a rapidly-growing second tier of workers without the same basic rights and protections that resident workers have, resulting in abuse and mistreatment of workers who are threatened with deportation if they complain.

“This absolutely creates a two-tier workforce. In many ways that’s what it’s designed to do, is to have this temporary workforce where people are treated simply as workers as opposed to full human beings. They are here to work under conditions that enable them to be exploited and then leave,” said Fay Faraday, a labour and human rights lawyer and professor at Osgoode Hall Law School.

Amelia came to Canada in 2019 as a live-in care worker. She told the Star she left behind two children to whom she regularly sends money. She has had to endure working 10- to 12-hour days with little time off, often getting paid for only six to eight hours at minimum wage.

Her contracts are precarious and she has often been in the position where she has had to scramble to find a new employer to maintain her status in the country, as was the case when she says she was sexually assaulted by her employer’s father.

“I have to keep quiet because I have no power here. I live with my employer so I can’t complain. I need to send money back to my children so they can survive, and I need to survive here and pay rent,” Amelia said.

“I had so much hope coming to Canada. But now it’s like I’m in a nightmare. I miss my children, I can’t see them, I can’t touch them. But I have to be strong so I can give them a better life.”

Like Amelia, Orel came to Canada from Jamaica in 2015 to provide for his two children and wife back home, doing seasonal work on a farm in Niagara, harvesting and pruning plums and peaches with about 120 other workers. For several years, Orel said he worked for 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, often for several months in a row.

In Ontario, farm employees are not entitled to daily and weekly limits on hours of work, time off between shifts and overtime pay.

“They treated us like animals, like we didn’t have any rights,” Orel said.

He added that if his employers thought workers were too slow, they would threaten them with deportation.

“He (the employer) used it as a weapon every day,” Orel said. “The government calls our work essential, but there’s no way to get permanent residence. It just feels like we’re being used and thrown away, that’s how we’re treated.”

The abuse some temporary workers are enduring today was not part of the original plan.

The program kicked off back in 1973 with the aim of addressing labour shortages for jobs Canadians could not or would not fill, including agricultural workers, domestic workers and highly skilled jobs, such as specialist physicians and professors.

In 2002, the program was expanded to allow companies to apply to bring in foreign workers to fill jobs in new sectors, including food service and hospitality jobs, under the “Low Skill Pilot Project.”

As a result, between 2000 to 2012, the population of temporary foreign workers in Canada more than tripled to 338,213 from 89,746, according to a report by the Metcalf Foundation, authored by Faraday. By 2014, a total of 567,977 people were working with temporary immigration status, the report said.

Following allegations that McDonald’s was abusing the program in 2014 — which lead to a federal probe — new regulations were implemented by then employment minister for the federal Conservative party, Jason Kenney, which put a cap on the number of foreign workers employers can hire and limited low-wage workers to no more than 10 per cent of a company’s workforce. Employers were also barred from hiring TFWs in regions where the unemployment rate was above six per cent.

Then, in April of this year, the regulations changed again.

In a bid to address a record-high number of job vacancies in the wake of the pandemic, the federal government amended the TFW program to make it easier for employers to access low-wage temporary foreign labour by increasing the number of migrant workers a company can hire.

The latest numbers show Canadian employers are doing just that. According to recent data from Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), the government department responsible for the TFW program, there was a massive surge in requests from employers to hire foreign workers in the first half of 2022.

ESDC numbers show that between January and June of this year, employers received 108,595 approvals to hire workers through the program (data for the last two quarters of 2022 have yet to be released). That’s up by more than 60 per cent from the 67,233 approvals granted in the first half of 2021, and more than the pre-pandemic annual total of 108,056 approvals for all of 2018.

To hire a TFW, an employer must first submit a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) to ESDC for approval, demonstrating that there is a need for a foreign worker to fill the job and that no Canadian worker or permanent resident is available to do the job.

Once the LMIA is approved, the worker can apply for a work permit. A single application can include several positions and so one LMIA approval could equate to several worker permits issued, and there is no limit on how many positions an employer can apply for with an LMIA.

Since 2016, LMIA approvals to hire TFWs have steadily increased, with a slight dip in 2020 due to pandemic closures. In 2021 there were a total of 132,027 approvals, up from 87,760 in 2016.

The majority of approvals in the TFW program are for farm workers. From 2017 to 2021, 249,867 LMIAs for farm workers were approved, according to ESDC data. This number is followed by home child-care providers, which had 22,839 approvals between 2017 to 2021.

Cooks are also in high demand, with 20,614 approvals in the same period. In Q2 of this year, there were 7,644 approvals for positions in accommodation and food services, a leap from the same period in 2021, when there were only 2,979 approvals.

According to data from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), 4,144 work permits were issued for cooks in the TFW program from January to October this year, a steep climb from the 112 work permits issued in 2016, and 1,167 work permits in 2017.

Farm workers in the TFW program had a total of 315,484 work permits issued by IRCC from 2016 to October 2022, the highest number of permits among occupations.

But as the program expands, TFWs continue to live with precarious immigration status and are tied to one employer as a condition of their work permit, which means that complaining about an employer could cost a worker their job and legal status in Canada.

Without permanent status, the threat of deportation hangs over any worker who dares complain about abusive conditions, making workers vulnerable and hostage to their employers’ demands.

“What we’ve had over the past two decades is a series of tweaks here and there which try to sharpen or smooth off some of the rough edges of the temporary worker program,” Faraday said. “There hasn’t been anything that has addressed fundamentally the way in which the laws we have create precariousness and exploitation of workers.”

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada spokesperson Julie Lafortune counters that changes have been made to the program to protect workers. She said in an email that as of 2019, foreign workers with an employer-specific work permit are able to apply for an open work permit if they are being mistreated by their current employer.

As well, in September 2022, IRCC and ESDC announced amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations concerning TFWs, which mandated that employers provide all TFWs with information about their rights in Canada and prohibited punishment by employers against workers who bring up complaints.

Enforcement of the rules is rare. But last June, Scotlynn Growers — an Ontario farm where a COVID-19 outbreak claimed the life of a migrant worker — was convicted of violating workplace safety laws. The farm pleaded guilty to one count of failing to take all reasonable precautions to protect a worker and will be fined $125,000.

Syed Hussan, executive director of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, is not convinced that workers are truly protected. He says TFWs in Canada date all the way back to Chinese railroad workers in the 1880s and before, but “we just didn’t call them that.”

 “The excuse of a labour shortage is just one of the reasons that are being used to justify the program and to access cheap labour,” Hussan said.

Economists and activists say a worker crisis is developing as the program balloons, creating a surge of cheap labour which disincentivizes companies from raising wages and improving conditions.

“We don’t have a labour shortage. We have a wage shortage because people aren’t being offered the wages they are looking for to take certain jobs,” said Sheila Block, a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

“What we’re seeing is workers for the first time in decades have a great deal of bargaining power with employers, and that has the potential to improve wages and conditions,” Block said.

“But rather than increase wages and shift the way workers would be organized, the government has instead agreed to increase the number of low-wage workers who have very limited rights.”

Block stressed that foreign labour is not taking any jobs away from Canadians and the solution to protect migrant workers is to grant them permanent status or open work permits at the very least.

“This is not an argument against expanding immigration. It’s an argument against the elements of this policy that create a second tier of workers,” Block said. “We should not bring people into this country to work without providing them with status.”

Claudia, 48, who came to Canada from Mexico in 2021 to work in a lobster shop in New Brunswick, agrees that giving foreign workers the same rights and pay as resident workers is the solution.

“Many of my friends who I lived with over the last year can’t speak English or have access to a computer. It’s a very sad situation because you don’t have someone who can help you or explain the rules,” Claudia said.

She worked 12-hour shifts, cleaning, weighing, sorting and packaging frozen lobster tails. During the peak summer months, Claudia said worked without any weekends for three months straight.

“When I was sick, they told me to just take a pill and keep working,” Claudia said. “When we come here we don’t know if it’s legal so we just follow the rules or what they tell us.”

Claudia hopes one day she’ll be able to get permanent status in Canada.

“I like Canada. I pay taxes like everybody. I make the economy of the province better, so why don’t I have the same rights?”