Construction union leaders in Western Canada are calling on the federal government to review the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) and its impact on construction in their region, claiming the industry was ignored in a new parliamentary report.
A government committee reviewing the TFWP released its report last month, giving 21 recommendations, including changes to the program to make it easier to import temporary foreign workers (TFWs). Mark Olsen, manager for the Labourers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) Western Canada, explained that while some of the report’s recommendations were good, the construction industry was completely left out.
"The report and recommendations on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program by the parliamentary committee are both bad and good," said Olsen.
"The bad part is they have completely ignored the construction industry and the needs of all participants in the whole industry."
According to Olsen, the committee focused on complaints from employers and their associations who want to streamline the application process. Industry groups from the high-tech, hospitality, seafood, meat processing, agriculture and agri-food industries said reform is needed to deal with chronic labour shortages.
"Some of the recommendations, if enacted, will further hurt the construction industry across Canada," Olsen said.
He explained that recommendations to speed up the process could impact the due diligence that should happen. Unions are also concerned that a recommendation to allow wage increases could open the door to thwart a union or harm collective bargaining as past legal cases have shown.
Union leaders would also like to see a move away from examining local labour conditions to determine the need for TFWs as the construction industry is national, drawing labour from around the country, he added.
Olsen also said he was unhappy about there being no requirements for a transition plan for high wage TFW construction jobs from a TFW to a Canadian worker.
LIUNA would also like to see recommendations for employers who abuse TFWs, suggesting that their names be made public and that they be banned from doing work with the government. They also want TFWs to be more informed of their rights to unionize and not be coerced.
Olsen is pleased with the committee’s recommendation for a pathway to full citizenship but would like that to be expanded to apply to all TFWs.
"Serious problems remain in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program," Olsen said. "Canadians continue to lose work due to the program. TFWs are being exploited and Canadian wages and benefits have been depressed."
LIUNA also announced the release of its white paper detailing the history of the TFWP and its impact on the construction labour force in Western Canada.
It highlights several case studies that show instances of employers denying TFWs basic human rights and offered recommendations. Olsen said the committee was sent the paper when the review of the TFWP was announced, but it was ignored.
One of the case studies involved Vancouver’s Canada Line project where there was a group of TFWs from Columbia, Costa Rica and Ecuador who were working for less than half of the minimum wage.
"When we organized and certified these workers they were scared as hell to sign a union card because they thought the employer could fire and send them home at any time," said Manuel Alvernaz, business manager for the Construction and Specialized Workers Union Local 1611.
The workers were the first TFWs certified to join a union.
It appears some government officials may support the review. When questioned by reporters, federal Employment Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk said she understands union concerns about TFWs in Western Canada’s construction industry and is open to holding an inquiry.
"We are very encouraged by Mihychuk’s statements, but it doesn’t end there," said Olsen. "The statements have been made and we hope they are confirmed in the House."
He said he intends to follow up with Mihychuk and other officials to push for the review.
Tom Sigurdson, executive director of the BC Building Trades, explained the construction-specific review is important as it uses a mobile workforce unlike more static industries.
"The reason we need to have a review is quite frankly the exploitation of workers who come in," he said, citing the case of 80 TFWs from the Golden Ears Bridge project who were abandoned by their contractor with no way of going home. One of the workers ended up committing suicide.
Sigurdson recognized the need for some TFWs, saying without their skill and expertise, project completions could bottleneck. He said the right balance can be achieved with project labour agreements so that TFWs are only used when necessary.