Foreign workers discussion sparks debate on abuse

By Jeremy Hannaford and Jess Wind (Contributor/The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: June 18, 2014

McCallum says it’s time to fix the temporary foreign workers program by returning to stricter regulations. (Image:  Som Jandu/ flickr)

McCallum says it’s time to fix the temporary foreign workers program by returning to stricter regulations. (Image: Som Jandu/ flickr)

A discussion on Canada’s temporary foreign workers policies turned into a debate regarding abuse of workers in agriculture when Liberal critic for citizenship, immigration, multiculturalism, and seniors John McCallum visited UFV.

McCallum took the stage in B101 on June 5 to talk about the federal Liberals’ position on the temporary foreign workers program; a short lecture breaking down the problems and potential fixes for the program left the rest of the time for an open question period.

After welcoming remarks by Student Union Society (SUS) VP external Dylan Thiessen and communications department head Samantha Pattridge, Rick Rake, former editor of the Abbotsford News, introduced McCallum with a list of his extensive credentials, to which McCallum responded by laughing at how his introduction read like a resumé.

“You might think I have trouble holding onto a job,” he joked.

He began his lecture by stating the program — which guides how we accept and coordinate temporary foreign workers to find employment and housing in Canada — was a mess.

McCallum explained due to lack of constant management and relaxation of the rules regarding intake of foreign workers, the number of people entering Canada on a temporary basis rose beyond control. Then the government tried to reverse their actions.

“The Conservatives have had the gas pedal on the floor in terms of goosing up this program of temporary foreign workers and then just recently a crisis hit so they slammed on the breaks to the point of calling a moratorium on the whole food sector,” he said. 

McCallum suggested rules and regulations had not been properly monitored, which in turn increased the number of temporary workers employed in jobs that could be performed by permanent residents.

“They loosened all the rules so that it became virtually automatic for anyone that wanted to bring in temporary foreign workers to bring them in,” he said. “It used to take five months to get a labour market opinion … then they changed it so that at least for some categories it took five days.”

Citing a report from the Economist, McCallum noted that the program caused higher unemployment in British Columbia and Alberta.

“The fact that companies … have quick access to temporary foreign workers means that they don’t necessarily have to hire Canadians who might look for those jobs,” he explained. 

McCallum went on to cite ways to fix the problem. These included tighter restrictions on the admittance of temporary workers and opening pathways to obtaining permanent residency. 

“Make a pathway to permanent residency for more of the temporary foreign workers,” he said. “We need a more responsive immigration system if we are going to have less dependence on temporary workers.”

The floor was then turned over to the audience. McCallum answered questions concerning the changing number of skilled workers over the past 10 years, the need for institutions that ensure workers’ rights, and who should be allowed into the country as a temporary worker.

“Companies … may find that the foreign workers are more committed, more hardworking, more docile (that’s a slightly pejorative word), more likely to obey orders, and less likely to quit, but I think companies have to deal with the reality of who Canadians are,” he said, responding to questions about low wages for temporary foreign workers in fast-food-style jobs.

Then one audience member brought up temporary foreign workers in the agricultural sector, saying that their presence keeps farmers employed. 

“In agriculture we can either import workers or we can import food,” he said. 

McCallum responded by assuring the audience that his comments were not directed at the agricultural program.

“I’ve never heard anything negative said about the agriculture program,” he said. “None of my comments were about the agricultural program, because … it hasn’t grown in a huge rate like some of the other components. That has been a rock of stability and nobody’s talking about that.”

In response, a member of the audience pointed out that many Mexican workers have been mistreated working in agriculture, rapid deportation and misleading housing accommodations being a couple of examples of alleged abuse.

“I’ve been dealing with agriculture workers for about eight years and … there are a lot of people in the industry that have lost their jobs to temporary foreign workers and it has been a way to suppress wages in the industry as well,” he said. “That program has been rife with abuse.” 

A 2012 CBC article stated that Mexican fruit-pickers were treated like “hostages,” having been denied the ability to change jobs or return home.

“Many workers want citizenship,” the audience member continued. “If they were to acquire it, the first thing they would do is leave agriculture.”

One member of the audience, who said he worked with the British Columbia Agriculture Council, stated there has only been one reported complaint regarding possible abuse of Mexican workers.

“We’ve had one case of abuse … it’s not nearly rampant, it’s not strife … I would say that 99 per cent of the farmers in the valley are using the system properly,” he said.

UFV criminal justice student Trevor Johnson replied that there is, in fact, a large amount of information on human trafficking in the agricultural and foreign worker program. He cited specific reports and listed various means of physical and psychological abuse used to coerce workers to work in unsafe conditions, and said when workers complained, they would be deported.

McCallum responded gratefully to the questions and resulting debate, noting he could no longer say he’d never heard anything negative about the agricultural sector. 

“This is one of the reasons I like these tours. I learn about things I didn’t know before,” he said before concluding. “We should make sure there’s a proper system … to go after the abuse, but I certainly would not exclude the agricultural program from that.”