Lawyer says ‘let them immigrate’

Every year temporary foreign workers from around the world come to Alberta under the Temporary foreign worker program to make up for labour shortages and to find work opportunities.

In 2007, Phil Johnny was trying to do just that.

Johnny came to Canada from St. Lucia, a small Caribbean Island, as a semi-skilled worker. This means that, with a work permit, he could work a job that required a secondary education as long as it provided on-the-job training.

“Back home, yes, there are some good jobs,” Johnny says. “There are just so few of them.”

He was offered a job in Calgary with a wholesale foods company as a material handler. This job gave him work experience in a new country, but Johnny says that he was misled and mistreated there.

“We were being lied to on a daily basis, and being threatened on a daily basis,” he says.
He stayed in the job for less than a year.

“Before we came to Canada we were told our flag would be flying outside of work,” he says. “We would get a pay raise within three to six months of working.”

Johnny says he was never given that raise.

Johnny says he was given a place to live with six other people, but believes he was paid less than Mexican and Canadian workers who were employed in the same job. Housing was provided in the home of the boss’ brother and other workers.

Johnny says he requested to live somewhere else but the company did nothing.

Johnny says that his boss’ brother said he was “going to make their lives a living hell at home and at work.”

After obtaining another work permit, and dealing with being underpaid, Johnny has since married a Canadian woman, started a family and is still living and working in Calgary.

Problems with the temporary foreign worker program

Yessy Byl specializes in labour law and is now an advocate with the Alberta Federation of Labour. She has provided legal services to temporary foreign workers. According to Byl there are a lot of problems with the temporary foreign worker program, and she says it should be scrapped.

“It’s a slave-owner mentality,” she says. “It’s quite appalling.

Infographic by Connor Bell; Source material from hrsdc.gc.ca“It’s created this huge illegal workforce and so many social problems,” Byl adds. She notes that the Chinese workers in the 1800s at least came as permanent residents.
She has seen people who have paid a lot of money to come to Canada only to find the job did not materialize or they were paid less than promised.

“We need immigrants, we need skilled workers,” Byl says. “Let them immigrate.”

She’s heard of employers having temporary foreign workers come to their homes to shovel their driveways and mow their lawns without pay. If the workers complain they get fired.

But not all temporary foreign workers have such a negative experience.

Benefits of the program

Sheldon Sonny, hired by Arcticor Structures as a temporary foreign worker in 2007, also came from St. Lucia for the travel experience and money.

In 2009 he married a Canadian and now has his permanent residency. He no longer needs a work permit and can work anywhere.

Sonny says that he knew what he was getting into and was given information about the money he was going to make before he arrived in Canada.

“I don’t feel like they took advantage, I knew they were looking for cheap labour,” he says.

Zoe Cooper is a spokesperson with Alberta Human Services. She explains in an email that the government has employment standards in place for all workers.

“Because employment standards inspections are based on claims, the inspection statistics are skewed to reflect worksites that may be more prone to have possible non-compliance.”

Zoe Cooper is a spokesperson with Alberta Human Services. She explains in an email that the government has employment standards in place for all workers.

“Because employment standards inspections are based on claims, the inspection statistics are skewed to reflect worksites that may be more prone to have possible non-compliance.”

“The vast majority of employees in Alberta experience absolutely no problems when it comes to being paid properly.”

The government of Alberta Human Services department offers anyone the ability to review employers to see if they have unsatisfied judgments on unpaid employee earnings.

Johnny says he has advice for new temporary foreign workers: “be aware of untrustworthy employers and research your rights as employees.”

Online information, temporary foreign worker advising offices and helplines, as well as an Employment Standards Contact Centre are all available on the Human Services.
Temporary foreign workers can also file complaints to the ministry of Human Services Employment Standards Complaint Form and for union workers through the Alberta Labour Relations Board.

sgalley@cjournal.ca