News  Temporary foreign worker program akin to “slave labour,” says advocate

Activists discuss “the end of immigration” in the face of cheap labour

Dozens gathered at New Chancellor Day Hall last Wednesday for a film screening of The End of Immigration?, a film by Marie Boti and Malcolm Guy that reviews the growing tendency to use temporary foreign workers as an inexpensive source of labour in the Canadian market.

According to the film, over the past few decades, Canada has worked toward cultivating an ‘immigrant-friendly’ reputation, an endeavour which is seriously hindered by the increased use of temporary foreign workers to fulfill labour needs in the country.

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The temporary foreign worker program was initially created to relieve temporary labour shortages by attracting skilled employees and caregivers when Canadians could not be found to fill the vacant positions. However, in 2002, the emphasis shifted to low-skilled positions when employers realized that the program could become a source of inexpensive labour. This shift has been criticized in the past year after several cases attracted public attention – notably, the Royal Bank of Canada’s use of the temporary foreign workers, as well as one case where temporary foreign workers replaced contractors in Fort McMurray.

According to figures released by Statistics Canada from the National Household Survey, 1.4 million people in Canada are unemployed out of the 18 million that are eligible to work, yet labour shortages still run rampant throughout the country. Businesses have begun employing temporary foreign workers, a solution which, ironically, seems to be quite permanent. Despite the promise of reforms by the government, the program is only growing.

This trend has had far-reaching implications beyond just the displacement of Canadian workers from opportunities in the employment sector. With over 330,000 employees in Canada falling under the federal temporary foreign workers program, the population of temporary workers greatly outnumbers the immigrant population.

One temporary foreign worker, Enrique Llanes, was present at the panel. Llanes came to Canada from Spain with a background in anthropology, but due to an inability to find work in his field, now works for a video game company.

“In Spain, we have this idea of Canada like a social paradise. Maybe it’s because we compare it to the U.S.. Canada and the US are very close – the U.S. is something like the devil, and Canada is like the little angel,” Llanes said.

However, this perception is misleading, he continued.

“The employer has full rights over your life, to call you at any moment, at any second, one hour in advance and tell you you have to be here and work in two hours or three hours. What do you do? You can’t get another job so you tend to comply.”

According to activists, Canada now mimics Europe, Saudi Arabia, and Hong Kong, areas with economies heavily reliant on temporary workers, making the use of these “rent-a-workers” more commonplace. Although temporary foreign workers make a large contribution to the Canadian economy, their collective political voice is still negligible.

Yessy Byl, an Alberta Federation of Labour advocate for temporary foreign workers, was one of many to criticize the flawed program.

“We have a system that is inherently engendering exploitation – it’s just inevitable. We set up a group of people who are brought to Canada to work […] so we’ve got basically slave labour, because [the temporary workers] can’t work legally somewhere else,” Byl said in the film, in reference to the stipulation that temporary workers must remain with a specific employer and within a specific location in order to maintain their employment.

“The system, the entire program itself, just lends itself to exploitation.”