Canada revamps TFW program
Changes met with protest, strong reactions from migrant groups
By Mia Ondo
Canada has recently revamped its controversial temporary foreign workers program with stricter rules, stiffer penalties and a hike in fees, with the aim of discouraging employers from hiring foreign workers. Migrant worker advocates and groups believe, however, the changes worsen the already precarious and low-wage conditions of temporary foreign workers in Canada.
Employment Minister Jason Kenney and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander announced the changes last June 20 with some of provisions for immediate implementation.
Among the highlights of the announcement were:
• Two new programs: the TFW program to be implemented by Employment and Social Development and the International Mobility program by the Citizenship and Employment Canada;
• Restricting access to the TFW program with a hike in fees, stringent requirements, a cap on the number of workers entering Canada, and cap on stay of foreign workers in Canada;
• Stiffer penalties for employers abusing the program, including being blacklisted and fines of up to $100,000 effective this Fall 2014.
The changes were initiated after the program drew some flak from some Canadians, particularly from the food services industry, who claimed they were eased out of the labour market by some foreign workers.
In reaction, the government imposed a moratorium on the hiring of TFWs in the food services sector last spring. The moratorium has been lifted with the announcement of the changes, with a renewed commitment that Canadians come first where there are job opportunities.
“We’re overhauling the program today to ensure that Canadians come first — that the temporary workers program is only used as a last and limited resort,” said Kenney in a press conference last June 20.
He said the new policy considers that “Canadians come first and that employers redouble their efforts to hire Canadians for available jobs and ensure that this program works to the best interest of the Canadian economy.”
Kenney said the TFW program for low-skilled workers will require employers to submit a new Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA), which replaces the Labour Market Opinion (LMO). The fee for the LMIA has been raised to $1,000 from the previous $275.
In contrast, the International Mobility program for TFWs will not require a LMIA and is based on largely on multilateral, bilateral and unilateral trade agreements of Canada with foreign countries. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) are examples of such agreements.
Kenney added that the revamp program will “better prevent and detect abuse and penalize employers who abuse the program.”
“We will severely sanction those who break the rules. We will protect foreign workers,” he said.
Effective Fall 2014, abusive employers will be fined up to $100,000, can serve jail time and their identities will be revealed in a blacklist.
Cap on hiring
Canada will also impose limits to the number of foreign workers to be hired over the years and for areas with high unemployment.
According to government data, there are currently some employers who have TFWs in their employ representing by as much as 50% of their total workforce. With the new rules, employers will have to reduce this percentage share to as much as only 10% of the firm’s entire workforce by July 1, 2016.
Also, LMIAs will not be processed for areas where there is an annual unemployment rate of more than 6%.
More protection needed
Despite these changes, supporters of migrant workers said foreign workers still need more protection.
Some member organizations of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC) held a picket last Thursday (June 19) in front of the offices of the Canadian Restaurant and Food services Association (CRFA) on Bloor Street West, Toronto.
Some of the consultation meetings of the government with stakeholders had been widely reported in the media and migrant workers groups were not happy with some of the anticipated proposed changes.
The protesters demanded status for all, or permanent residency status for foreign workers, and better regulations to protect migrant workers.
Migrante Canada, a Canada-wide Filipino association, joined the protest and mobilized its members across the country to join similar protest actions.
Chris Sorio, vice-chair, Migrante Canada, said the TFW issue affects Filipino migrant workers all over Canada.
In an interview over campus radio Radyo Migrante last Sunday (June 22), Sorio added that the changes do not offer much to protect migrant workers.
“Ito ay walang binigay na magandang pagbabago kundi lalo lamang nitong pinatibay at pinahigpit ang exploitation ng mga migrant workers (The changes don’t translate to any benefit for the migrant workers but instead, they only strengthen and intensify their exploitative situation),” said Sorio.
Migrante Canada officials, including secretary-general Marco Luciano, also told Radyo Migrante that the TFW issue is not about foreign workers taking jobs away from Canadians. This is given that official Canada government statistics show that foreign workers make up a small percentage of the Canadian total workforce.
Government statistics show that as of 2013, only 83,740 TWFs have entered Canada compared to 137,533 workers under the International Mobility program. In total, these foreign workers make up only 1.16% of the 19 million Canadian workforce.
Instead of this focus, Migrante Canada wants to focus attention on how the government is helping protect foreign workers.
Sorio noted that even with the stiffer penalties for erring employers, the system of protecting workers is still based on lodging complaints. Given the temporary status of these workers, some of them have expressed apprehension to report wrongdoings for fear of reprisal.
“On the enforcement of this crackdown on employers, how can this possible if this (enforcement) is (implemented) in the context of (being) complaints-driven, meaning a worker needs to file a complaint,” said Sorio in Tagalog. “If you’re a temporary worker, will you call the hotline to say that you’re being abused when you know there’s no guarantee that the abused complaining (worker) will be allowed to stay on in the country? The hotline doesn’t guarantee foreign workers protection from the violations (of allegedly abusive employers).”
Advocates of migrant workers’ protection also fear that the $1,000 fee to get an LMIA, which is a requirement before any employer can hire a foreign worker, will simply be passed on to foreign workers as part of their recruitment fees, which is still unregulated.
“What this means is that workers will have to pay thousands of dollars more in fees to come to Canada, (resulting in) larger and larger debts,” said Tzazna Miranda Leal, a member of MWAC, said in a separate interview.
Leal added that the changes announced also do not address the issue that TFWs do not have any voice to exert their rights. She said the changes still make TFWs vulnerable as workers are still afraid to speak out for their rights.
Meantime, the federal government said some of these new rules, including the cap on the number of TFWs coming into the country and their length of stay in the country, won’t affect the live-in caregivers and seasonal agricultural workers as “there are proven acute labour shortages in this industry and the unfilled jobs are truly temporary” in the case of seasonal agricultural workers.