Temporary foreign workers isn’t as uncommon in Niagara

The use of temporary foreign workers isn’t as uncommon as people might think. The recent controversy over the Royal Bank of Canada outsourcing technology jobs to temporary foreign workers has caused a media storm, but here in Niagara some of the area’s bread-and-butter sectors have benefitted from offshore workers.

Doug Birell, president of Canadian Niagara Hotels, said it’s been about five years since the company had to use the federal government’s temporary foreign worker program.

“The way the job market was at that time, it helped us,” he said.

That was pre-recession. With more Canadians employed, temporary foreign workers were used to fill what most people would call undesirable jobs such as chambermaid positions, or “back-of-house” positions as Birell put it.

But now, with Niagara’s unemployment rate more than 8.1%, those jobs are filling up more easily.

“We seem to be filling the positions with residents in the Niagara peninsula,” said Birell.

The temporary foreign worker program often requires an employer to undertake a labour market opinion from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.

If Canadian citizens and permanent residents are not available to do the job, offshore workers can be brought in to fill positions. The program is designed to fill short-term gaps in the labour market and the government’s policy allows employers to pay temporary foreign workers up to 15% less than the prevailing wage.

According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, more than 338,000 temporary foreign workers held positions in Canada in 2012.

A similar program is used by wineries in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program allows workers from Mexico and the Caribbean to immigrate to Canada for support during planting and harvesting seasons.

Larry Savage, director of the Centre for Labour Studies at Brock University, said it is used extensively there, mainly because the jobs are not “good jobs” and don’t appeal to Canadians.

Savage, who co-authored the book Union Power: Solidarity and Struggle in Niagara, said agricultural work falls outside of the Ontario Labour Relations Act and certain aspects of the Employment Standard Act do not apply to harvesters such as overtime pay and hours of work per week.

“It’s low paying and very dangerous work,” he said. “As other industries grow in Niagara, people don’t want to do these.”

The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program has been in place since 1966 and Savage said it continues to grow in popularity for employers.

“It’s also a way to avoid unionization and these workers, because they are temporary, don’t have the same employment rights as Canadian workers,” he said. “Losing their job is tenfold, because not only do they lose that, but their opportunity to work here.”