Stakeholders dissatisfied with proposed fixes to TFW Program

'There are no remedies that gave workers income security, permanent status and more systemic power'

Stakeholders dissatisfied with proposed fixes to TFW Program

A number of stakeholders have expressed frustration over the Senate’s recommendations to fix the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) Program in the country.

The Senate report failed to seize on the temporary status of the workers themselves, which is the root cause of their vulnerabilities, said Vesanthi Venkatesh, an associate professor of law at the University of Windsor.

"There are no remedies that gave workers income security, permanent status and more systemic power," she said, according to a CBC report.

Currently, migrant workers do not earn overtime or holiday pay and are not guaranteed a minimum income should their contract be abruptly terminated, said Venkatesh. In their situation, these workers are afraid to report abuses because, even if the authorities step in to discipline the employer, the worker is often blacklisted, she said, according to the report.

"We deal with these workers all the time," she said. "Once the worker is blacklisted for asserting their rights, for example, it's very difficult for them to get a job within that sector because employers work in collusion."

Last week, the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology noted that the TFW Program “is not working well for employers or workers”, and gave the following recommendations for the federal government:

  • establish an adequately funded tripartite Migrant Work Commission, modelled after the Canada Employment Insurance Commission that would include a Commissioner for Migrant Workers, a Commissioner for Employers and representation from the Government of Canada, through Employment and Social Development Canada and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada
  • establish and implement a plan to phase out employer-specific work permits within three years
  • provide more transparent pre- and on-arrival information about transitioning from temporary work permits to permanent residence
  • conduct unannounced inspections as the standard
  • provide more pre- and on-arrival information about migrant workers’ rights to access health care, including what the employer is required to provide, how to access interim private health insurance, if required, and how to apply for provincial or territorial coverage
  • coordinate a data strategy across federal departments and with provinces and territories to promote more information sharing and best practices.

‘They're putting more Band-Aids on bullet wounds’ 

Of particular point of interest for both committee chair Sen. Ratna Omidvar and another stakeholder is the closed work permits that migrant workers get under the TFW Program.

"Closed work permits, where an employee is tied to one employer and one employer alone, creates the conditions for abuse," said Omidvar in another CBC report.

The permits can also cause problems for employers because companies cannot move employees to jobs where they are needed, according to the Senate committee. Also, workers cannot be promoted even if that would be applicable.

To address this, providing flexibility is important, said Omidvar.

"At the heart of this is flexibility – flexibility for the employee to work in another place in the same sector, flexibility for the employer to also hire from a pool of employees and move them around," said Omidvar.

The committee recommends a system of work permits tied to particular sectors, and perhaps to regions.

That, however, still does not cut it, said Ryan MacRae, a program coordinator for the Cooper Institute's Migrant Worker Program, in the same report.

"It's a closed work permit, kind of with an asterisk, really," he said. "Employers often know each other. These are small communities, small circles."

Workers who are being exploited should be able to move away from the influence of their initial employer, and the committee's recommendation does not make that possible, he said.

MacRae said he doesn't understand the government's reluctance to get rid of closed work permits altogether.

"Maybe we're asking the wrong questions. Why is it that employers might want to have that control over their workforce? Why is it that workers might want to leave?" he said, according to the report.

"When you have a system that is built on exploited labour, no matter what you do to patch that, when it's got its foundations built on that precariousness of migrant labour, then all these Band-Aids are not going to address the root causes."

Union calls for changes to TFW Program

In February, the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) called on the federal government to close some streams under the TFW Program which, they claimed, is being exploited by low-wage employers. Specifically, the union was referring to the Recognized Employer Pilot (REP) under TFW program.

Established in 1973, the program was meant to be a last resort for employers who could not find workers in Canada, noted Omidvar. Now, many businesses – and some whole industrial sectors – rely on temporary foreign workers to function.

For example, an estimated 40 per cent of P.E.I.'s agricultural workforce is made up of temporary foreign workers, according to the report.

By late 2020, the share of immigrants participating in the labour force surpassed that of the Canadian-born population. And in early 2024, the participation rate of immigrants outperformed Canadian-born workers by 2%, according to a previous Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) report.

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