Employee of the Month Today, Deported Tomorrow: The State of Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program

Ordering a “double-double” at Tim Hortons is a slice of contemporary Canadiana; a rite of passage for new and established citizens and visitors who pass through “The Great White North”. It is curious then that many of the hands that reach over the counter to pass us those signature paper cups belong to people from as far afield as the Philippines. Across the nation, coffee shops, gas stations, and small businesses of every kind are exceedingly staffed by new immigrants, many of whom are not even fully-minted Canadian Citizens. A burgeoning number are brought in through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. They are drawn to the promise of steady wages to remit to their distant families, who are often pulling blankets over sleepy eyes as their benefactors don work uniforms in the light of the rising sun.

Arnisito Gaviola, Antonio Laroya, and Ermie Zotomayor are three such family men. Hailing from the Philippines, they arrived in Alberta in 2007 to slog through the daily grind as gas station attendants. On Wednesday, May 18, they boarded a plane bound for the Philippines to reunite with their families. Waiting on the tarmac were their loved ones, who received them with a bittersweet mixture of relief and veiled disappointment.

The three men were, after all, deported against their will.

The “Three Amigos”, as they were dubbed, were found in breach of their work permits and subsequently ordered out of the country. Their plight accentuates concerns that Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program is in dire need of reform. Underscoring the bureaucratic hopscotch inherent in this temporary labour scheme is the question of whether the program, which Finance Canada lauds as a “principal tool to help employers meet immediate skill requirements when qualified Canadian workers cannot be found”, simultaneously tramples upon the dignity of vulnerable people from across the developing world.

In the Philippines, an underdeveloped economy dominated by a feudal agricultural system expels almost four thousand Filipinos every day. These unwilling members of the Filipino Diaspora take diverse posts across the globe. Their importance within the world’s economic engine is so acute that if every single Filipino sailor were to go on strike, the global shipping trade would effectively grind to a halt. Here in Canada, they’ve taken low-wage positions that most Canadians would avoid, in regions as remote as the Alberta tar sands. What unites them is a dedication to family and a love of their adopted country, despite its often perfunctory dismissal of their sacrifices.

Inherent problems in Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program cause untold numbers of its constituents to suffer rights abuses and cruel treatment. After serving Canadian patrons for almost two years, the Three Amigos were informed that “it has been decided that the operating structure of the retail operation will change”. A few months before the expiration of their work permits, they were downsized. This was arguably a move by the employer to avoid a rule mandating the payment of an employee’s return airfare after the completion of the work tenure. By terminating their work contracts and leaving enough of a window for them to find new employment, that responsibility was effectively shifted onto their next employer. Acts of opportunistic jettison like this are all too common along the migrant worker landscape. Recourse for victims is tantamount to a precarious house of cards due to the nature of their work permits.

Temporary work permits are tied to one employer at one location, barring migrant workers from immediately finding new jobs. The wisdom of this restriction is dubious. It encourages workers to remain silent when their rights are violated for fear of reprisal or termination. Those that have been given the boot have ninety days to apply for a new work permit. The average processing time is four months, thirty days longer than the grace period. With a few exceptions, temporary foreign workers are also ineligible from collecting Employment Insurance, despite paying into the program. Given this inexplicable dichotomy, it is virtually guaranteed that there are temporary migrants working illegally in Canada. The alternative for them is to cease their vital remittances.

In desperation, the three men cast off for new employment and were hired by a restaurant in Peace River, Alberta. It was at this point that they began to seriously consider the possibility of becoming Canadian citizens. The Alberta Immigrant Nominee Program (AINP) allows employers to nominate employees for permanent residency. Acceptance is never guaranteed and a limit is set on the number of workers accepted into the program. In contrast, skilled workers have two venues to permanent residency: The Federal Skilled Worker Program (FSWP), and the Canadian Experience Class program (CEC). Low-skilled workers have no such opportunities. According to a report commissioned by the Institution for Research on Public Policy (IRPP), “This situation reflects a clear goal: Canada wants lower-skilled workers to leave the country after a certain period of time and skilled workers to settle permanently.”

After making some early inquiries into the possibility of being nominated under the AINP, the Three Amigos were disappointed to learn that their employer had already used the nomination to enter a fellow employee into the program. Manitoba’s Provincial Nominee Program (PNP) offered a resolution to their dilemma. There is no limit to the number of applicants, and the only prerequisite for eligibility is six months of work experience in the province. A friend found them employment at a gas station in Thompson, Manitoba. Bags packed yet again, the trio sallied forth, presumably in hopes that this would be the last time they would need to uproot themselves.

Fate sometimes has a cruel way of answering our pleas.

Potential employers in Manitoba are required to register with the province before hiring temporary migrant workers. The Three Amigos were assured by their new employer that their permits were forthcoming. Because it is technically impossible for workers to check if their employers are registered, the three men had only their boss’ verbal assurances as an affidavit. The house of cards reference seems apt here as well. With no reason to distrust their new employer and with mouths to feed back home, the Three Amigos carried on their daily toil. On June 24, 2010, they were arrested by the Canadian Border Services Agency for lacking proper work permits.

The trio received excellent counsel from Nobel Peace Prize nominee David Matas, who mused that “It doesn’t make much sense to remove these people and then bring in other people to do the same jobs.” From a strictly economic standpoint, the current state of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program is at odds with its perceived goal of quickly filling gaps in the labour market. Paltry one and two year work terms followed by hefty repatriation fees have yet to prove their cost-effectiveness.

The Three Amigos were found to have breached their work permits and were issued exclusion orders to leave Canada without possible reentry for at least one year. On paper, the charges brought against them are convincing, but can the same be said of a system that set them up to fail? Their employer has been charged with illegally hiring foreign nationals but will likely receive a slap on the wrist and be prohibited from using the program for two years. Criminal investigators with Canada Border Services agency had allegedly been monitoring the employer but failed to notify the trio because it may have jeopardized the investigation. Small comfort to three honest men who have had their livelihoods torn from them. In yet another case of ends justifying the means, three bystanders have been sacrificed to apprehend one individual. The logic of our nation’s finest astounds.

To re-appropriate the words of Bill O’Reilly, another master of logic, “Tide goes in, tide goes out.” So too with Canada’s temporary labourers. Under the current Conservative regime, business will go on as usual. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has managed to woo a subset of the Filipino-Canadian community with minor changes to the Live-In Caregiver Program (LCP), but the TFWP as a whole remains as oppressive as ever.

Replacing the rigid nature of temporary work permits with province or sector-specific boundaries would allow greater movement for temporary workers and provide them with added security when faced with abusive employers. Quickly shoring up labour gaps might then become a real possibility for the program. More active monitoring of working conditions could afford a semblance of dignity to these disenfranchised people. Contrary to a few imbecilic opinions, temporary workers contribute to the national economy. They pay income taxes and contribute to Employment Insurance and the Canada Pension Plan, despite being denied those benefits. They pay rent, buy groceries, and live out their daily lives in much the same way other Canadians do. That they remit a portion of their incomes is comparable to an overzealous saver stashing away for a rainy day.

Canada’s economic landscape is in shambles and the Three Amigos, along with their contemporaries, have experienced the inevitable racist backlash so shabbily hidden behind this nation’s mantra of multiculturalism. With fewer jobs to go around, Canadians are justifiably incensed. The irony of that misplaced vitriol is not lost on the ruling Conservatives, who can sleep soundly at night knowing that it is the hard-working immigrant that keeps the dogs at bay instead of their friends on Bay Street who have engorged themselves at the expense of egregious tax and service cuts. Employing the classic ruse of switch-a-roo, the Conservatives have hoodwinked the Canadian public into buying the ancient fraud of “blame the foreigner”.

If foreigners can be blamed for anything, it’s of buoying this country’s economy. In an era where corporate fat cats earn exorbitant bonuses that are inversely proportional to their moral caliber, temporary migrant workers soldier on under increasing suffocation. Snaking lineups outside recruitment agencies in the Philippines blur the reality of the temporary labour scheme taking place north of the 49th parallel. Canada is still considered the land of milk and honey for Filipinos eager to escape the bleak economic prospects created by centuries of brutal colonization by Spain and America. According to one interviewee in a recent Globe and Mail article, which irresponsibly paints a rosy picture of the Filipino experience in Canada, “Most of my friends want to come here… It’s the ‘in’ thing in the Philippines to come to Canada.” In so much as voters are asked to choose the lesser evil on election day, that statement may in fact be true.

Filipinos can do far worse. A common destination for Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), or as the Philippine government likes to call them, “Heroes of the Nation”, are the states of the Persian Gulf and North Africa. The revolutions in the region have displaced tens of thousands of Filipino workers and cut off their incomes. The movements of the Arab Spring have highlighted the need for widespread reform for both citizens and migrant workers. Unfortunately, OFWs have been scorned by the seething masses, who see them as tools used by the ruling class to undermine native labour. These expats are fleeing the region en masse, and at least one Filipino is reported to have been killed during the fighting in Libya. Filipino labourers in Saudi Arabia have their salaries routinely lowered to amounts far below those specified in their contracts. Allegations of physical abuse and rape by their patrons are commonplace. Even in a self-proclaimed democracy like Israel, employers confiscate passports and terminate workers who raise concerns about working standards. This isn’t widely discussed. After all, raising issues of a labour system that approximates modern slavery would evoke disturbing biblical precedents.

The list of offences goes on and on.

Possibly the most glaring offence is that thrust upon our fellow human beings – those that are asked to come into our country to help us build it but are systematically cast aside when the job is done. In the heart of every migrant worker is an aversion to the act of leaving his or her family behind. Survival foments desperate measures. Rather than begrudging these stalwart trailblazers their tireless spirit, they should be welcomed as equals and encouraged to put down roots. If we hold our nation to be a beacon of justice and fellowship in a progressively cruel world, we can do no less.

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