Mark Olsen, Labourers International Union of North America (LiUNA) manager, began a press conference held on Oct. 6 in downtown Vancouver by citing a story in the Tyee online news site which said that federal minister of employment, workforce development and labour MaryAnn Mihychuk is open to holding an inquiry on the current state of temporary foreign worker policy.
According to the Tyee, a parliamentary committee reviewed the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and made 21 recommendations in a report last month which critics said favored business.
LiUNA has released a white paper entitled "The impact of the temporary foreign worker program on the construction labour force in western Canada (2003-2015)" with policy analysis and recommendations for changes to the federal government's approach to temporary foreign worker policy.
Olsen said LiUNA's reaction to the federal report is that it was "both good and bad." He said the government has completely ignored the construction industry in the report, and that some of the recommendations in the report, if enacted, would lead to less jobs in construction and more abuse of temporary foreign workers.
However, the good thing about the report is also that they didn't mention the construction industry, because it called for speeding up the approval process and for wages being raised for foreign workers.
"There's a concern that with high wage foreign workers, which is what construction is, there's less need for a transition plan to bring Canadian workers into those jobs," Olson said.
He also pointed to the oilsands, where workers don't come from Fort McMurray but across the country, especially Atlantic Canada. The focus has to be across the country, not in the local labour market, he said.
"They need to publish the names of employers who aren't acting responsibly, and when they aren't acting responsibly they shouldn't be allowed to bid on projects," he added, noting this was not included in the report.
TFWs also need to be protected against discrimination and harassment and should be able to join a union they wish, he said.
Serious problems remain in the program, Canadian workers are not working and TFWs are being abused, he said, citing four case studies found in the report, including the Golden Ears Bridge, the Canada Line, the Murray River Project and the Horizon Oil Sands project in Alberta.
"We're encouraged by minister Mihychuk's statements, but it doesn't end there," Olsen said.
Manuel Alvernaz, the business manager of LiUNA local 1611 said that most of his union including himself were once foreign workers. He came to Canada in the 1960s, and within a year was a landed immigrant. He and his coworkers all became Canadian citizens.
Alvarnaz said that foreign workers should also have that capability, so they don't operate in fear of being sent back to their home countries. He said he is calling on the government to make a transition to Canadian citizenship or at least landed immigrant status easier for TFWs.
BC Building Trades executive director Tom Sigurdson said construction is by its nature mobile and short term but important and creates infrastructure that the rest of society benefits from.
He pointed to the Canada Line project, where Costa Rican workers were "quite frankly exploited, working for half the B.C. minimum wage (of $8)." He also mentioned Croatian workers who were not able to return home because they were not given airfare, and cited HD Mining's Tumbler Ridge project, where Canadian workers were bypassed for Chinese nationals.
"TFWs are part and parcel of construction, it's part of what we do," Sigurdson said. But when there's a labour agreement in place, it's possible to get the foreign workers needed in a proper manner.
Sigurdson pointed to a Kitimat project where 75 per cent of workers were from B.C, with 24 per cent from the rest of Canada and one per cent American workers from a sister union, as a positive approach to TFW employment.
"What this book shows," former BC Federation of Labour head Jim Sinclair said, "is that there is a serious problem with the TFW program in Canada." He added that with more major projects on the books it is important to make sure Canadians aren't kept out of working for these projects.
There's a wage shortage, not a labour shortage in Canada, he said, adding there is no labour shortage given the amount of Canadian workers laid off while TFWs continue working on projects.
"This isn't a fight between TFWs and Canadians, this is a fight against cheap labour," Sinclair said, and noted it isn't fair for companies paying a fair wage to have to compete with companies spending less and hiring TFWs.
In a Q&A session, Olsen said with new projects coming on line, it's legal for companies to advertise "artificially low" wages for work, which keeps Canadians applying for these positions. Companies can then claim they couldn't get Canadian workers, he said, and bring in TFWs for a lower wage. More robust enforcement is also necessary, he said, not just for Canadians but to prevent abuse of TFWs.
Olsen said they applaud the government for the recent announcement that they will deal with abuse within the RCMP, and that processes will be put into place including unionization. Olson drew a parallel to TFWs in that there is discriminatory wages and benefits, fraud and negligence when looking at the four cases highlighted in the LIUNA report. He added Canadians are being abused by losing work that should be accessible to them.