Canada’s Building Trades Unions (CBTU) are worried that abuses of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) could drive down wages, undermine the construction industry and threaten the job security of workers.
The organization, which speaks for more than half a million unionized skilled construction trades across the country, outlined its concerns recently in a submission to the federal government, noting that it prefers a program that gives migrants a fair shot at permanent immigration and removes the indentured-servitude-type problems that arise when a worker is dependent on their employer for sponsorship.
The CBTU stated the government’s commitment to reform the system is admirable, but it has “grave concerns” around the low-wage stream within the TFWP, the enforcement of proposed regulations and also the possible abuse of the International Mobility Program by both domestic and foreign employers.
“We have already witnessed these programs being used to undermine our industry, the job security of Canadian workers, and the good work we have put into training and supporting highly skilled Canadian tradespeople,” the CBTU says.
“The misuse of these programs helps to develop an underground economy that undermines the integrity of our industry and creates situations that provide for the abuse of foreign workers, not to mention taking away on-the-job training opportunities for apprentices.”
Arlene Dunn, director of the CBTU, says the organization accepts that there is a role for some level of temporary migration to meet critical, short-term skills needs, but it must only be used in extreme cases.
If we use the TFW program as our fix this will hurt long-term strategies for labour force development
— Arlene Dunn
Canada’s Building Trades Unions
“We acknowledge the fact that in some sectors, for example, like the agricultural sector, labour supply has been a challenge and in order to meet critical demands is a necessary solution — we have no issue with that.”
Furthermore, she said, when the skilled trades reach the saturation point the CBTU is cognizant that it needs to address legitimate skills shortages and has been working with the government to solve the problem.
However, she added, there needs to a proper and rigorous process of managing the situation and bringing in workers under the TFWP must only be considered when there is no other solution to the situation.
“We do not want to see skill sets watered down. Proper skills sets are imperative. We must not lower standards. There is a possibility for serious safety implications and potential for abuse.”
Moreover, said Dunn, the industry can’t rely solely on the TFWP as a solution.
“We need to have a long-term strategy. If we use the TFW program as our fix this will hurt long-term strategies for labour force development around underrepresented groups (and) Indigenous populations in Canada. We don’t want to see this happen.”
Instead, said Dunn, the country needs programs that operate with pathways to citizenship for such workers, otherwise the shortage of skilled trades will repeat itself and perpetuate a long-term problem.
The trades argue that there is a need for clearly-defined limitations on workers brought in through the low-wage stream and also that proper oversight via on-site monitoring and credential checks for workers is provided by government over the implementation of the TFWP program, as unscrupulous contractors are continuously looking at opportunities to bring in cheap and unskilled labour into Canada.
“Under no circumstance should the Temporary Foreign Worker Program be abused in such a way as to undermine the Canadian workforce or those it is meant to serve,” said Dunn. “Everyone must be held accountable.”
Although the changes do not affect the International Mobility Program, the CBTU said in the submission that it does have an impact on how temporary foreign workers enter Canada and needs to be addressed.
“Abuses of the program should be reigned in and people coming to Canada to work in agriculture, for example, should not then be able to jump over into the underground economy in construction or other sectors,” said Dunn.
She noted there also has to be better co-operation between provincial and federal regulators along with a system of checks and balances, more compliance officers, penalties and transparency and consistency on reporting.
The CBTU submission notes that the federal government has no systematic program for notifying provincial employment standards agencies of the location, occupations and nationalities of migrant workers and no agency is responsible for ensuring that the workers receive the same treatment as Canadian workers.
Dunn maintains the programs are not monitored properly and there is no enforcement, little to no field checks and spot checks are very limited.
The CBTU states that the TFWP could be used by employers to bring in foreign workers in classifications such as labourers, for example, and allow them do jobs normally classified for highly-skilled trades.
“The work of our tradespeople can be inherently dangerous, and proper training is an absolute must for handling construction equipment and operating in construction worksites,” the CBTU states.
“Not all employers respect this, especially when faced with the prospect of needing to spend money and time to ensure their workers are properly qualified.”
Unscrupulous contractors are continuously looking at opportunities to bring in cheap and unskilled labour into Canada, the CBTU states, and construction will be ripe for possible abuse if proper safeguards are not in place.
“It is vital that labour mobility programs make clear and explicit the values we hold with regards to the use of temporary foreign workers and the need for effective enforcement mechanisms to ensure compliance with those values,” the CBTU states.
“While we strongly support the interests of temporary foreign workers themselves, we do not believe employers should be given liberty to use labour mobility programs to undermine the interests of Canadian workers.”