Sunday, February 25, 2007

Canada's hottest new import? Employees

Foreign workers flock to booming Alberta, but critics fear program is being overused

With a report from Canadian Press

OLDS, ALTA., CALGARY -- Craig and Teresa Sutherland were ready to give up on their thriving Boston Pizza franchise located in tiny Olds, Alta.

Despite the rush of people to resource-rich Alberta from other parts of the country and around the world, the Sutherlands couldn't find or keep enough staff at their restaurant in this farming and oil and gas community of 6,000 about an hour's drive north of Calgary.

"We were at the point where we were saying this just wasn't worth it," Mr. Sutherland said. "We kept getting our heads handed to us."

Then the couple heard about the temporary foreign-worker program, a 31-year-old federal initiative that allows employers to hire foreigners when a Canadian worker can't be found as long as they help them get settled. The selling point for the Sutherlands: The workers sign exclusive work contracts for their entire stay in Canada.

"We jumped on board right away. These guys saved us. I owe them everything," Mr. Sutherland said about the six Sri Lankan line cooks who arrived at their restaurant starting last summer. Each signed a three-year contract to work full-time for $11.75 an hour.

But while the arrangement has worked well for the Sutherlands and their new employees, critics are concerned that the program, which isn't actively policed for abuse or problems, is being wildly overused and opening up foreign workers to exploitation. They are not legally entitled to government settlement services such as language courses, but in some cases are being charged thousands of dollars by private agencies to come here while others only pay for a plane ticket.

"The rules are a confusing mess and nobody seems to be in charge," complains Gil McGowan, president of the Edmonton-based Alberta Federation of Labour. "This program was meant to be a stopgap measure. And now the federal and provincial governments have put the program into overdrive without putting into place any of the necessary rules or safeguards."

The result has been a unique immigration boom. While the number of temporary foreign workers has doubled in Canada since 1996 -- to 145,871 in 2005 -- one of the fastest rates of growth has been in Alberta, which is experiencing an acute labour shortage, particularly in the skilled trades and service and hospitality industry.

From 1996 to 2006, the number of the province's temporary foreign workers has more than tripled to about 22,000. It's not unusual for entire planeloads of foreign workers to be flown straight to the oil-sands projects in northern Alberta.

Meanwhile, the federal Conservative government has eagerly made several changes to the program to help labour-hungry employers, including an announcement yesterday in Vancouver that will allow some of these foreign workers to sign longer contracts.

Federal Minister of Human Resources Monte Solberg said if an employer is caught exploiting the program, they aren't allowed to participate again. "There are very few examples of this occurring, but when it does occur, it's dealt with quickly and decisively," he said.

Last year, Ottawa made it easier for employers in Alberta and British Columbia to apply for temporary foreign workers by loosening application rules. Special offices were even set up in Calgary and Vancouver to speed up the permit-approval process, which can normally take several months.

In the midst of the rush to get more workers to Canada faster, provincially regulated employment agencies and brokers are increasingly getting involved. Traditionally, the written contracts were signed between employers and foreign workers, but the law allows third-party involvement -- and these agencies are stepping in as often well-paid middlemen.

A sign hanging outside Calgary-based JIR Solutions reads, "Get your foreign worker today!"

The almost one-year-old company specializes in bringing skilled workers to Alberta through its recruiters in the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine and Britain.

While some recruitment firms charge the prospective worker thousands of dollars just to line them up with a job in Alberta, JIR president Eric Rudy says his company does not. JIR charges the companies seeking employees a $1,000 administration fee, plus $320 for every month the worker is on contract, and assists newcomers to get settled by helping to find accommodations and introducing them to people who share their heritage.

"I think there's a lot of people trying to make money off this," sighed Serena Holbrook, general manager of Calgary-based Pockar Masonry, which has hired a handful of temporary foreign workers both independently and through brokers. "They don't have the workers' or employers' interests at heart."

Ms. Holbrook said that in some cases workers are being charged to come to Canada, employers are being charged once the labourers arrive -- and newcomers are being abandoned. Her company got a call "out of the blue" from a broker in Winnipeg late last year, inquiring whether they needed a bricklayer just arrived from Ukraine.

That bricklayer, 46-year-old Volodymyr Vakhnyanyn, saw an advertisement in his local paper about high-paying contract jobs in Alberta. He handed over about $3,800 to a Winnipeg employment broker, who promised to connect him with an employer. Once he arrived in Manitoba, though, there was no job waiting.

"I have empathy for these workers," Ms. Holbrook said. "My father came over [from the former Yugoslavia] with $5 in his pocket." She offered Mr. Vakhnyanyn a position. He took the bus to Calgary and Mr. Rudy's recruitment firm was hired to help him get settled.

Now, 2½ months later, Mr. Vakhnyanyn is kicking himself for not using a broker that didn't charge a fee. Still, he eventually wants to apply to stay in Canada permanently and bring over his wife. "I haven't been here long, but I feel better than I ever have been before."

Mr. McGowan, the labour leader, recently helped 14 Romanian welders and machinists who were being mistreated and scammed by their employment broker.

The men, who speak minimal English, were working for oil-field service companies near Edmonton. They claim the broker was breaking several labour laws, including illegally garnishing their weekly paycheques by 75 per cent. According to the workers' pay stubs, the broker was docking their pay for everything from furniture to transportation and rent.

Mr. McGowan said the system isn't set up to readily catch this type of exploitation because it's complaint-driven. He added it's "naïve" for provincial governments to expect foreign workers to lodge complaints because they would likely be sent home. "There is a dangerous power imbalance," he said.

By law, all temporary foreign workers are protected by provincial employment safety and labour rules. "Everyone is treated the same," said Lorelei Fiset-Cassidy, a spokeswoman for Alberta Employment, Immigration and Industry.

She said the government doesn't monitor temporary foreign workers "because the bureaucracy on that one would be crazy." However, she said the government recognizes that there is a "real disincentive" for temporary foreigner workers to lodge complaints. Of the more than 4,000 labour and employment complaints being investigated, she said, only 18 are from people who identified themselves as temporary foreign workers.

Back in Olds, townspeople have warmly welcomed the community's only Sri Lankan residents. Residents have donated furniture, dishes and clothing. Four of the men rent furnished rooms for $230 each in a one-storey home bought by the Sutherlands, while the other two have rented their own apartments.

"Everybody knows our names," beams Asiri Rupasinghe, 25. "Everyone is real nice. We really like our bosses. They are like our parents."

The hotel-management graduate said his job at Boston Pizza is "too easy" (he was used to working 15- to 20-hour days) and he'd like to work another job, but his contract doesn't allow it. The bachelor used his life savings and money from his parents to pay the more than $8,000 in fees to secure his job in Canada.

Mr. Rupasinghe said his dream is to eventually apply for permanent residence here, get married and either manage a hotel or become an executive chef. "I will probably stay here in Olds," he said. "I'm not sure if I went to another place I would be treated as well."