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Union wants action on underground economy

Grant Cameron

Local 183 of the Universal Workers Union is urging the federal government to make dealing with undocumented workers and the underground economy a priority.

Brief presented to feds

staff writer

Local 183 of the Universal Workers Union is urging the federal government to make dealing with undocumented workers and the underground economy a priority.

A brief released by the union calls on newly-appointed Immigration Minister Joe Volpe to “move this matter to the front burner of policy reform” for 2005.

“Dealing with undocumented workers and the underground economy will take political will but must be dealt with in a concerted fashion by governments and construction labour and management representatives.

“To ignore the issue will only lead to a further deterioration of an already untenable situation. Now is the time for action.”

The brief was prepared by Andy Manahan, development promotion representative with Local 183, and submitted recently on behalf of the union and its management partners to the federal government.

In the brief, Manahan says Local 183 has pursued the matter for some time now and has pushed for a number of steps to deal with the issue.

“Local 183 has advanced a positive reform agenda for addressing the circumstances that face thousands of undocumented construction workers.”

For example, the brief states, Local 183 has participated with the Residential Construction Council of Ontario (RESCON) and other organizations on the Ontario Minister of Labour’s Health and Safety Action Group.

The Action Group was set up to address, among other things, the underground economy and the plight of undocumented workers.

Local 183 and other organizations have also participated on the Joint Advisory Implementation Group (JAIG) of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB).

A proposal on mandatory coverage for the construction industry was submitted by JAIG to Labour Minister Chris Bentley in December 2004.

The proposal calls for mandatory coverage so that all construction employers, workers and independent operators fully participate in the WSIB system.

“Legislative change is required to expand coverage to independent operators and sole proprietors and would be a positive step to deal with those who attempt to avoid WSIB premium payments to the detriment of the entire construction industry,” Manahan says in the brief.

According to the brief, Local 183 has recognized the plight of undocumented workers and has pushed the issue at every opportunity.

“The government has acknowledged that so called ‘illegal’ workers in Canada can be exploited when operating in the underground economy,” the brief states. “Undocumented workers across all sectors typically earn less than their Canadian counterparts, live in fear of being deported and do not have the same access to health care and other basic benefits that most of us are accustomed to.”

The brief outlines the steps that Local 183 has taken to push the matter to the forefront.

In June 2001, a report on construction labour shortages in the Greater Toronto Area was submitted to two federal ministers with a cover letter that pointed out there are workers in Canada operating outside of the visa limitations, the brief states.

The solution put forward was to institute a temporary worker program for a three-year period, recognizing that many of the trades are integral to meeting the high demand for housing in the Toronto area.

The proposal was to allow undocumented workers who enrolled in the program to apply for permanent residency at the end of the three-year term.

Although media coverage on the undocumented worker issue continued in 2002, the brief says the feds took no direct action to resolve the problem.

In 2003, a small working group was formed to put forward practical solutions that could be tested through a pilot project and a proposal to regularize undocumented workers was submitted, the brief states, but the issue did not gain political traction likely because of the transition from a Jean Chretien-led government to a Paul Martin government.

The brief says that in 2004, then Immigration Minister Judy Sgro expressed support for bringing in one or two pilot projects for undocumented construction workers in the Greater Toronto Area, but nothing happened as she ended up stepping down from her position.

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