Growing up in the Philippines, Maria* always dreamed of going to Canada or the United States to live and work. There weren’t many well-paying jobs in her hometown, about two hours from Manila. Those who had money seemed to get it from relatives working overseas. Thin and energetic, Maria started a bachelor’s degree in physical therapy on the advice of a great aunt who was living in the United States and told her it could lead to work abroad.
Instead of taking her final exams and leaving the country to work, Maria got married and had two children. Her husband, a detective, made enough money to cover their expenses, but Maria wanted to work as well. Not able to find a job in her field, she taught piano lessons and opened a small convenience store to help support the family. As the marriage soured and her husband began hitting her, Maria thought more and more about her childhood dream. At age 31, she met with a recruiter in her town — a middle-aged woman who had moved to Canada and offered to secure a job for her there. Under Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program, Maria learned she could get a permit to do low-skilled work. It was a way out of her marriage and a chance to do something for her future and for her kids. Her son and daughter could stay with her mother. Maria imagined that one day she would bring them to Canada.
The following year, in June 2009, after paying the recruiter over $2,500, Maria was on her way to Canada. She had her permit, which allowed her to work for one year as a gas-station attendant in Leduc, Alta., a small city about 30 minutes south of Edmonton. But when she arrived, her recruiter told her the gas station no longer needed her. Not to worry, the recruiter said, they would figure something out.
A few weeks later, Maria was working illegally at a fast-food restaurant. She had agreed to use her recruiter’s name and social insurance number, and her paycheques went straight to her recruiter’s bank account. Every two weeks, the recruiter would give Maria whatever money remained after deducting payments for rent and instalments on unpaid recruitment fees. Maria still managed to send about $200 to the Philippines most months, but she wasn’t able to save any money. And she worried about whether the government would deport her if they found out she was working under someone else’s name.
Maria’s is but one of hundreds of distressing cases that Terry Andriuk has heard over the past two years. “There are so many ways to be crooked, you wouldn’t believe it,” says Andriuk, manager of the temporary foreign worker settlement service at the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers. In 2008, over 360,000 foreigners were in Canada on temporary work permits, overshadowing the 250,000 permanent residents accepted the same year. The number of temporary foreign workers doubled over the five preceding years — and almost quintupled in Alberta. As the numbers grow, so does the abuse.
The program that brought Maria to Canada, the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, isn’t new. It dates back to 1978. But unlike the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (which began in 1967) and the Live-in Caregiver Program (which saw its first incarnation in 1981), the Temporary Foreign Worker Program was originally geared to skilled professionals — university professors, doctors and actors — who wanted to work in Canada but not necessarily to immigrate. However, after the government introduced a pilot project in 2002 that opened the program to low-skilled jobs, the number of foreign workers multiplied and the nationalities of those workers shifted. Whereas the top source country used to be the United States, it is now the Philippines. People come to Canada from distant countries under one- or two-year permits to serve fast food or sweep floors at the mall. They’ve often paid recruiters thousands of dollars to come and have aspirations to bring their families and move here permanently.
The federal pilot project prohibits aspiring workers from paying recruitment or placement fees, asserting that their employers are responsible for covering these costs. Both Alberta and British Columbia also have provincial legislation banning workers from paying these fees. But the rules are rarely enforced. Most people in faraway countries don’t have the means to locate an employer halfway around the world, nor can they navigate all the paperwork required to work in Canada. Back in the Philippines, Maria realized she wasn’t supposed to be paying money to a recruiter — it said so on her work permit when it arrived. But how else would she find her way to Canada?
Foreign temporary work permits are tied to one employer — a fact that makes people like Maria particularly vulnerable. In her case, the job she was expecting didn’t pan out. Her legal options at that point were to return home (temporary foreign workers are allowed to remain in the country until the expiry date on their last permit) or to find a new employer willing to navigate all the red tape required to hire her. The process can take a long time. Foreign workers often spend months out of work even after they’ve found an employer. Going home is generally not an option since many are still paying off debts accrued in coming to Canada. Maria still owes money to relatives back home. She was hoping that with her job in Canada, she’d be able to pay them back, as well as save for the future.
Another wrinkle: because losing their jobs means losing their permission to work in Canada, temporary foreign workers are often too nervous to demand compensation for overtime or report injuries or abuse.
In 2007, the Alberta Federation of Labour hired lawyer Yessy Byl, who became the go-to advocate for temporary foreign workers. She was soon swamped with cases. “Nobody had any idea how huge this was,” she says. She met people who had paid recruiters up to $15,000, who had been fired after an injury on the job, whose employers had been deducting huge sums for rent, board and transportation. “It’s been a really demoralizing project,” she says.
As a response to reported abuses, the Alberta government started funding settlement services for these workers, such as the one at the Edmonton Mennonite Centre. Federal politicians are also working toward better protection for temporary foreign workers. A parliamentary committee recently recommended making permits sector- and province-specific rather than employer-specific, and creating a path to permanent residency for all temporary foreign workers. While the live-in caregivers program allows workers to apply for permanent residency after a set period, neither the seasonal agricultural nor the temporary foreign worker programs have the same provision. Although some of these workers are able to stay permanently through a provincial nominee program, most are not.
The Conservative government seems to be moving in another direction altogether. Last October, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney proposed regulation that would limit the stay of temporary foreign workers to four years to reflect the short-term nature of this program. The proposed amendments, framed as protection for foreign workers because they include penalties for abusive employers, have been wildly unpopular among settlement workers, who argue that the time limit is arbitrary. Byl thinks the need for low-skilled labour is permanent but feels the government doesn’t want these workers to have any entitlement. “We need foreign workers,” says Byl, “but we don’t want them as equals.”
One foreign worker discovered he wasn’t considered an equal after spending years working on Ontario farms through Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker program. Since the late 1980s, Dave Beepath would leave his native Trinidad for seven months of every year to work on Canadian farms — “from nursery to harvest,” he explains with pride. But in 2003, after tensions arose in his home country, he overstayed his visa, losing the legal status he once had as an agricultural worker. He managed to get some construction and farming jobs under the table over the next few years.
Then, in 2006, Beepath started to pass blood in his urine and felt a severe pain in his abdomen. At a volunteer clinic for people without health insurance in Scarborough, Ont., he learned he had kidney stones and need surgery on both the right and left sides. Even after getting a reduced rate on his first operation, Beepath ended up with a hospital bill of $4,800 that he began paying off in monthly instalments. A year later, he was deported back to Trinidad where he underwent the second operation — at no cost. But considering how much time Beepath spent toiling in Canadian fields, one wonders whether this country should have helped him.
For Yessy Byl, the Temporary Foreign Workers Program challenges Canadian values. “My faith in Canada as a welcoming nation has been profoundly shaken,” she wrote in a 2009 report. She doesn’t think Canadians can justify having foreigners do the country’s dirty work without allowing them to become full members of society. If Canada needs low-skilled labour, it should adjust its immigration requirements, she argues. As it stands, highly educated immigrants, like doctors and engineers, are invited to stay but either can’t find suitable work or have trouble getting recertified. Low-skilled workers often have jobs but aren’t allowed to stay.
After serving fast food under her recruiter’s name for five months, Maria started looking around for help. She travelled to Edmonton, where an old friend from high school was living, and found a pita-restaurant manager who agreed to go through the application process to hire her. She kept working in Leduc under the thumb of her recruiter as she awaited news of her new job — her escape plan. Finally, this past January, Maria packed her clothes and moved to Edmonton, leaving her illegal job and her recruiter’s abuse. She still had to wait for her work permit, but she found a roommate — a woman from the Philippines — who let her wait to pay rent until starting her new job. Maria shared her story with settlement workers at the Edmonton Mennonite Centre, and is planning to tell immigration officials as well. But she’s nervous about being deported because she worked illegally.
In early March, Maria received her new permit and started at the pita place the next day. It’s lots of work, but she loves getting her own paycheque and she’s happy to be using her real name again. Soon she’ll start saving and sending more money back home. And she prays she’ll be able to bring her children to Canada one day, and stay permanently. “If I was given the chance, I would live here,” she says. “My two kids would have a future.” The last time she spoke with her family back home, the first thing her five-year-old daughter asked was “Can I go to Canada too, Mom?”
*Not her real name
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