The Exploitation of Temporary Foreign Workers -Interview on CBC Edmonton March 8, 2019


Tara McCarthy:                 A foreign worker from Edmonton is now in hiding. She says the owner of an Edmonton restaurant that sponsored her work visa tried to extort her for sex. If she didn’t comply, he threatened to withdraw her immigration application. The woman who can’t be named, due to a publication ban, was sponsored under the Alberta immigrant nominee program. Raj Sharma is the managing partner of Stewart Sharma Harsanyi. He specializes in immigration law and joins me now from our Calgary Studio. Good morning.

Raj Sharma:                        Good morning.

Tara McCarthy:                 How common is it that foreign workers get exploited like this?

Raj Sharma:                        Unfortunately, Tara, it happens all too often. And the exploitation and the ill treatment of temporary foreign workers is nothing new. It goes back to the days of coolie labor. It goes back to the days of the Chinese laborers on the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Tara McCarthy:                 Why is it so common?

Raj Sharma:                        It’s common because there’s various power dynamics, power imbalances at play. It happens because we have individuals that are coming here from third world countries. And there’s various sort of actors, bad actors unfortunately. There’s recruiters, for example. There’s individuals in every community that recruit foreign workers. They give them these sort of stories. These stories of riches that the streets in Canada and other countries in the west are paved with gold. That you go there, you make money, and of course, you secure a future for yourself. And unfortunately, that dream usually turns out to be a pipe dream.

Tara McCarthy:                 And how could we prevent this from happening then so it’s not so common?

Raj Sharma:                        That’s difficult. I think that if you look back at it, the temporary foreign worker program for unskilled individuals under way back in the [inaudible 00:01:53] days was very, very limited. And once the conservatives came into power around 2006, 2008 that temporary foreign worker program became much more easier to use. The conservative government was much more business friendly. And businesses want temporary foreign workers because their wages are set. They don’t have labor mobility. These individuals have to work for their employer. So businesses like it because it eliminates turnover, for example. And so for a period of time, getting authorization to hire temporary foreign workers, at that time called the labor market opinion and I’ve said this before, it was … An eight year old with a crayon could have filled out those forms obtained authorization. The conservatives then had a number of other policies that were not helpful to the situation. Temporary foreign workers, for example, low skilled temporary foreign workers could only live here for four years and then go back.

Raj Sharma:                        So because of the restricted label mobility, because of language barriers, because these individuals that are exploited are typically lower skill occupations, there’s barriers. And of course, language barrier being one of them. And so you have individuals. And most of the exploitation, unfortunately, is happening within the community. So this is in the shadows. It stays in the shadows. And not enough has been done by either government to curtail this. So for example, there should be more checks. There should be more audits of employers utilizing this program. And frankly, exploitation is happening quite a bit in ethnic restaurants. And I say that being … My parents being from India. And I’m a little bit more aware of what goes on inside the Indian diaspora. And this happens in the Chinese communities and other diaspora communities as well.

Tara McCarthy:                 Now you mentioned checks, audits. Some critics might say, “Well, that would cost a lot of money.” What would be your response to that?

Raj Sharma:                        Well, the employer pays a fee. I mean, the Service Canada is the responsible department. A fee is paid by the employer, $1000 for temporary foreign workers. I mean, again, the problem has been recognized. It’s just that not enough has been done. So for example, Jason Kenney set up a blacklist for temporary foreign workers, employers that are not compliant. And that blacklist was a blank list for four years. There was no employer on that list. And so certainly there’s funding there. I mean, what are those fees for? What do those $1000 … The fees that employers are required to pay. They should be utilized to ensure that they’re compliant. And of course, remember one thing. Canadians got outraged about the temporary foreign worker not because of the many, many stories of exploitation. They got outraged a couple years ago because some restaurants including McDonald’s were preferring temporary foreign workers over Canadian workers. So the issue, of course, came to head a couple of years ago. But it wasn’t because of exploitation. It was because of concerns that employers and temporary foreign workers were working the system and Canadians were left out in the cold.

Tara McCarthy:                 Under the Alberta Opportunity Stream, foreign workers can now sponsor themselves. That’s been in place since January of 2018. Will this make things better do you think?

Raj Sharma:                        It’s in place since June of 2018. And the … I don’t think … They don’t quite sponsor themselves because what you’re referring to is that after 12 months of working [inaudible 00:05:30] LMIA and a work permit, meeting language proficiency requirements, you can apply for permanent residencies. But you still have to show that you’ve been working. So you will still need employer buy. And the employer may not have to sign off on your forms, but you will still need pay stubs, you’ll still need a record of employment, you’ll still need evidence of this. And many, many employers, for example, the black market on LMIA’s for example. Temporary foreign workers are paying 20 to $40,000 here in Calgary and in Edmonton. And so they come here to work. Sometimes the job is not there. Sometimes they’re paid way less than what is on the LMIA. And so even if they do apply, there may be problems for them if the employer wishes to create a problem for them. It is very, very difficult. And right now, I think employers feel … And exploitative employers, I should say. There are many employers that treat their employees properly, and in accordance with the laws, and the requirements. But as of right now, many, many employers get off … Exploitative employers get off scot-free. And there’s a feeling out there that there is impunity.

Tara McCarthy:                 Raj, what are your recommendations for where the government should go from here on this issue?

Raj Sharma:                        Well, I think that there has to be far more scrutiny. There has to be spot checks and audits. Service Canada officers have the legislative ability to go, even without a warrant for example, to ensure that employers are compliant. There may be … I think you will have to loosen up that sort of labor mobility. And I think that officers … When you have a situation of exploited worker that does come forward. Now that’s relatively rare. When they do come forward, they come to me. There’s limited avenues for redressal for them. For example, there may be an ability for them to get an open work permit if they’ve been exploited or the victims of human smuggling or human trafficking.

Raj Sharma:                        There is a way for them to obtain permanent residency through a Humanitarian and Compassion Application. Now I did that for an individual very similar to whoever you’re referring to as [Ashna 00:07:35] in Edmonton. I did that and the Humanitarian and Compassion Application in that case is a liquor store owner who had fired her as a reprisal to screw up her ANP application. And it was rejected. We had to go to the federal court. And the Federal Court Justice had to point out in his decision that officers need to be a little bit more sensitive to the fact that the request for relief was predicated on abuse and exploitation. So there has to be a little bit more sympathy. There has to be a little bit more avenues. And we have to allow whistleblowers and individuals that come forward that if you come forward the result is not you being deported or you leaving Canada. The result has to be that there will be some way for you to remain and some avenue for you to have a shot at that Canadian dream that you had hoped for when you first came to Canada.

Tara McCarthy:                 Well, thanks for the conversation this morning, Raj. I appreciate your time.

Raj Sharma:                        My pleasure.

Tara McCarthy:                 That’s Raj Sharma, an immigration lawyer in Calgary. He’s managing partner of Stewart Sharma Harsanyi.