A sign hanging on the north side of the Olymel pork processing plant in northeast Red Deer reads: “JOIN OUR TEAM.” On the sign is a mean-looking pig sporting a pair of sunglasses. Despite the company’s need for more labour, the slickster swine hasn’t been able to fill the plant with employees. That’s why, in 2004, Olymel started bringing in temporary foreign workers from countries like El Salvador and the Philippines.
For many Albertans, a job at the plant would be a bottom-of- the-barrel employment option. But for people like 38-year-old Jorge Solis, a temporary worker from El Salvador who came to Red Deer in October 2004, the plant represents much more: a decent wage, for starters, as well as health coverage, dental benefits and ESL classes.
“In my country it is very bad,” explains Solis, who works as a loin-trimmer at the plant. “You make five dollars a day.”
On the surface, the temporary foreign worker program looks like a win-win situation, and in some cases it is. Workers from developing countries can come to Canada and make more in a day than they make during several weeks at home, and worker- starved Alberta employers benefit from their labour. But there’s a darker, less publicized side to the program.
“These workers are more vulnerable,” says Jason Foster, director of policy analysis for the Alberta federation of Labour. “It’s not a good deal for them. It might be on the surface, because they can make more money than they did back in their home country, but they don’t get the same rights as landed immigrants or Canadian citizens.”
Every year, thousands of foreign workers come to Canada with temporary work visas. In 2005, they numbered almost 100,000. About 10 per cent of them came to Alberta, but that proportion is set to increase as meat plants, construction companies and even restaurants look overseas for employees. Companies as diverse as Suncor, Boston Pizza and Canadian Tire are bringing in workers from countries as far away as the Philippines and Sri Lanka.
“For the last number of years it’s been challenging, especially in the smaller markets,” explains Clark Marcolin, owner of the Boston Pizza in Whitecourt. Marcolin brought in several workers from Sri Lanka after trying in vain to fully staff his restaurant with local employees. “You do every avenue of exploring to try and get people and nothing works,” he says. “It’s been a huge learning curve for everybody.”
The provincial government has long foreseen and hastened the influx of temporary foreign labour in Alberta. In May of 2004, then Learning Minister Lyle Oberg signed a memorandum of understanding with the federal government for oil sands construction projects. The agreement emphasized that employers “want assurance that they will have a secure source of skilled tradespeople when they require them, to avoid loss of project investments and loss of productivity and to ensure that project timelines can be met.”
However, the memorandum of understanding is vague about the workers’ rights. It says wages must be equal to the prevailing wage rate, working conditions must “meet generally accepted standards for the trade in the region,” and collective agreements must be honoured for jobs that are part of a bargaining unit. All of these are stipulations of the federal program.
Even if these conditions are met (and that’s not always the case), foreign workers like Solis face other challenges. Most foreign workers who come to Canada can’t speak English, and they struggle with loneliness long after they’ve said goodbye to their spouses and children in their home countries. They won’t get to see them again for a year or two.
At the UFCW Local 1118 office in Red Deer, about 20 Salvadorans, including Solis, sit at round tables and pore over English/Spanish dictionaries while taking notes. for six hours each week, the workers come to the strip-mall office to take ESL classes. The atmosphere is jovial and reflects the celebratory nature of Latin American culture; the room resounds with laughter as the workers joke around in Spanish, despite the “English only” rule instituted by the teacher.
Language is a huge challenge for the workers. Upon arriving in Canada, the Salvadorans had to immediately start working under supervisors who spoke no Spanish. One woman in the class describes how newcomers get by at the plant without understanding English—“just say yes, or just say no,” she says, nodding and shaking her head the way she did to her super- visors before she could understand what they were saying.
“In my country it is very bad,” explains Solis, who works as a loin-trimmer at the plant. “You make five dollars a day.”
“Most people who speak English in El Salvador are people who are wealthy,” explains Isabel Herrera, a volunteer with the Central Alberta Immigrant Women’s Association. “They go to private schools.” Herrera and her family came to Red Deer in 1991 after two of her husband’s brothers were killed in El Salvador’s brutal civil war. Now, Herrera helps Salvadoran temporary workers who struggle to integrate into a foreign culture in which they must immediately function. Like most of the workers, Herrera spoke no English when she arrived in Canada. fifteen years later, she speaks fluently and runs a child care service from her home.
But even though there is a community of Salvadorans in Red Deer, it’s often challenging for workers to connect with that community. Some of the workers go to Mass (most of the workers are Catholic), but there are no parishes in the city that hold services in Spanish. “They go to Mass, but they don’t understand,” says Herrera.
Because the Salvadorans board with one another in apartments and houses, they don’t often speak English outside of work. The classes have given them the opportunity to learn and speak more English, and they’re especially grateful since knowledge of either English or french is a prerequisite to Canadian citizenship—something most of the workers want to secure.
The Salvadorans in the ESL class have been nominated by Olymel to stay in Canada as permanent residents, and they’re anxiously waiting to be accepted by Alberta’s provincial nominee program. Hopes are high among the workers, and they dread the thought of leaving Canada. “I don’t want to go back to El Salvador,” says Solis, who hopes that his application for residency is accepted, not only so he can stay in Canada, but also so his wife and two children can immigrate. “They want opportunities, too,” he explains. Spouses and children under 18 can immigrate once the worker’s nomination is accepted.
The workers give many of the same reasons for wanting to become permanent residents. Canada is cleaner than El Salvador. It’s safer. There are more jobs, and employers pay better wages. There are more opportunities for their children in Canada.
“Everyone is scared to go back,” says Herrera. “[The Canadian government] never promised that they’d be able to stay, but they started to get their hopes up.”
Loneliness is another big struggle for the workers. They buy phone cards and call their husbands, wives and children back in El Salvador. Herrera and other members of the Salvadoran community in Red Deer invite some of the workers over to their homes on weekends—“to help them relax,” explains Herrera. The Salvadorans also take the workers shopping when they move out of company-leased housing. “We help them find beds and all the stuff they need for their apartments,” says Hererra.
Other foreign workers are less fortunate than the Salvador- ans at Olymel. At least at Olymel, workers don’t have to worry about being paid fair wages. The same isn’t true everywhere. Even though the federal government requires that foreign workers must be paid the prevailing wage rate for a job, foreigners are often paid less than their Canadian colleagues when they aren’t represented by a union. Furthermore, the federal government has no mechanism in place to ensure workers are being paid fair wages.
“That statement is air, because they’re not on the ground inspecting those workplaces,” says foster. “They’re not checking employment records to make sure that temporary workers are being paid what the employers said they’d pay them.”
Workers who cause trouble or bring negative attention to their employer can be sent home the next day if the employer chooses. “You’re not going to defend your rights if you know that if they fire you, you’re deported,” says foster. “Their existence in the country is exclusively dependent on them staying in the good graces of their employer. That’s not a good situation to put anybody into, ever.”
By comparison, at Olymel the Salvadoran workers are guaranteed fair wages and job security. The starting wage at the plant—for both foreigners and Canadians—is $10.55 an hour, plus premiums. They have union representation. They have fair benefit packages that include dental and optical coverage. They enjoy their jobs at the plant—though they admit it’s challenging—and want to keep working there.
“The job is very hard, but it’s good for money,” says Guadalupe, a temporary loin-trimmer at the plant who has a husband, three daughters and a son in El Salvador. “I miss them. And them to me. Every night I talk with my daughters. My daughter, she says, ‘Mama, come back, please.’
“It’s difficult for me to be here, but it’s better for them.”
Several blocks south of the UFCW office, vehicles are pulling into the parking lot of a Wendy’s restaurant and pulling back out within mere seconds. The reason? The dining room of the fast-food joint is “temporarily closed,” says a sign on the door. Go through the drive-through, it says. Not enough workers. A giant sign in front of the restaurant advertises the benefits of working at the fast-food joint.
No one can argue that Alberta has a labour shortage in some sectors—especially the service industry. however, there is some contention about whether or not there is an actual shortage in sectors like the construction trades. Companies like Suncor see a shortage where unions don’t, and are turning to temporary foreign labour as a solution. “We’re seeing the beginning of what could be a fairly significant labour shortage,” says Brad Bellows, a Suncor spokesperson. “Certainly, bringing in temporary guest workers is a last-option response.” A subcontractor of the company recently brought in 30 Filipino welders, ironworkers and pipefitters to work on Suncor’s firebag in-situ project.
But unions and tradespeople argue that some employers in the province—especially in the oil sands—simply want to bring in temporary foreign workers to bypass a unionized domestic workforce. “Our building trades locals have yet to encounter any difficulty finding an appropriate number of skilled workers to fill those jobs,” says Foster. “There are other workers available. It’s just that many employers only want workers who will work for lower wages.”
Temporary work permits are issued federally. In 2004, none were given to foreign welders, ironworkers, steamfitters or pipefitters headed for Alberta, but in the past year hundreds of permits have gone to Alberta-bound workers in these trades. Companies like Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. and Suncor have raised the ire of organized labour in Alberta by importing foreign workers. (It didn’t help that Canadian natural negotiated with the Christian Labour Association of Canada—an “employer-friendly” union intensely despised by traditional unions—to represent the workers on its horizon project.)
Workers who cause trouble or bring negative attention to their employer can be sent home the next day. “You’re not going to defend your rights if you know that if they fire you, you’re deported,” says Foster.
In addition to accusing employers of using the foreign worker program to bust unions, the AFL also says employers use the foreign worker program as a way to avoid hiring domestic apprentices. Alberta’s apprenticeship system has a low completion rate: less than half of the Albertans who start apprenticeship programs go on to complete them.
“[Employers] want it both ways,” says Foster. “They want quick, easy access to temporary workers, and at the same time they’re not prepared to build apprentice training into their hiring and labour plans. And the government is quite happily feeding that irresponsibility.”
The call for more workers in Alberta prompted the federal government to open a new temporary foreign worker office in Calgary last September. The office helps employers move their applications through the system faster. Citizenship & Immigration Canada staff at the office have been busily handing out information on the program. Several months after the office opened, the government made it easier for employers to bring in foreign workers for 170 different jobs. Typically employers need to advertise jobs extensively before bringing in foreign workers, but for the jobs on the list, that’s no longer a requirement.
But even as more employers look abroad for workers, the jury’s still out on whether or not bringing more foreign workers to Alberta is a good idea, especially for jobs that have no union representation. foster and other labour advocates want more to be done to ensure that once the workers arrive, they have protections and freedoms beyond what the employer decides to give them. “Why are we setting up a situation,” he says, “where we allow a group of people, just because they don’t happen to be Canadian, to be exploited?”
Jeremy Klaszus is the contributing editor at Alberta Views.