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BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Canada’s dilemma

Tony Best

BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Canada’s dilemma

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It’s a classic example of pessimism. Remember the warning: “If it looks too good to be true chances are it is.”
Unfortunately, far too often the words of caution turn out to be a bit of wisdom. But in the case of Canada’s Temporary Foreign Workers programme, which offers West Indians a chance to fill vacant position in one of the world’s richest countries at a time of high unemployment in the Caribbean, it isn’t a scam.
Although it hasn’t turned out as some Bajans had dreamed, the programme, which has some deeply embedded flaws, may still offer many a chance, not simply to bring home the bacon for the family back home, but eventually to live permanently in Canada. That’s provided, of course, that Jason Kenney, Canada’s Minister of Employment and Social Development comes up with new and far-reaching regulations next month that would  improve life for foreigners and Canadians and meet the needs of the economy: more skilled and lower waged workers.
Actually, trouble in employment paradise for hundreds of Barbadians and tens of thousands of immigrants from around the world began recently just when more West Indians were flowing into Canada to fill temporary jobs.
The nightmare can be traced to complaints from thousands of Canadians who charged that they were either being fired from low-paying jobs so that employers could bring in foreigners at lower costs or they weren’t being hired in the first place to work in fast food restaurants, hotels, abattoirs, private homes and vegetable farms. The Canadians contend employers preferred temporary foreign workers
According to claims made before the House of Commons Finance Committee in Ottawa recently, the most blatant forms of abuse occurred at some well-known fast food restaurants which allegedly paid the foreigners much less than what Canadians received, despite the fact that reforms made to the original initiative barred employers from underpaying the foreigners.
Some employers were said to have forced foreign workers to accept less than the established minimum wages. The alleged abuses didn’t stop there. Under the scheme, employers had to submit labour market opinions to the government to support their need for foreign workers, but Canadians charged that some companies cooked the books and submitted bogus data to show Canadians weren’t interested in low-paying jobs. As a matter of fact, two waitresses in Saskatchewan told the parliamentary committee they were dismissed and replaced with temporary foreign workers.
Those charges may have been responsible for Kenney’s decision to impose a moratorium on the hiring or retention of workers for the programme’s food section until the Stephen Harper administration came up with a comprehensive reform package sometime next month. The upshot: many workers have either returned to their birthplaces or are packing their bags expecting to be forced out of the country.
The Conservative government in Ottawa finds itself being criticised by both employers and trade unions which support the programme, albeit for different reasons.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business is worried that the minister’s decision will gut the programme and therefore prevent firms from getting workers they need to keep their doors open. UNIFOR, Canada’s largest private sector union and the Alberta Federation of Labour insist the scheme should be reformed but kept alive because of its value to the economy.
The head of the Alberta Federation of Labour, Gil McGowan, told a community forum last week in Edmonton that the flow of temporary foreign workers should remain but improved so that the immigrant would eventually become eligible for Canadian citizenship, just like generations of foreigners did decades ago.
“Instead of Canadians as a country deciding what mechanism should be used to bring in people to this country to build the country for future generations, they’ve created a programme that essentially privates immigration and allows employers to make decisions about who to bring into the country and to pay for them,” McGowan told about 200 foreign workers at a community forum hosted by Migrante Alberta, a migrant workers advocacy group.
Alberta’s Minister of Labour Thomas Lukaszuk has backed the scheme’s retention but insisted on improvements that should include giving permanent residency status to the foreigners.
What then should be done by Kenney to aid the Bajans and other West Indians as well as workers from around the world?
More than 300 000 of these individuals are living and working across Canada: those from Mexico, Jamaica, Barbados and other countries living and working on agricultural farms in Ontario. Under the proposed changes the federal government should give the foreign workers a clear path to citizenship, boost the scheme’s oversight in order to eliminate the abuses now plaguing it, introduce a new foreign skilled worker plan that would benefit graduates of the University of the West Indies, the Barbados Community College and other tertiary level institutions across the Caribbean, create a higher wage scale for the temporary positions, and introduce employment insurance for the foreigners.
Jayson Myers, president and chief executive officer of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, believes there should be national recognition across Canada that “foreign workers who enter the country on either a temporary or permanent basis” should be considered an “economic priority”.