Tough times hit temporary foreign workers

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      Rufino Salas thinks about his family a lot these days. The 30-year-old temporary foreign worker from Morelos, Mexico, had plans to bring his wife and two daughters to Vancouver. That was last year, when construction activity in the region was still going strong.

      But nowadays, in the face of a sluggish economy, Salas doubts that his family can join him at all. With construction slowing down and employers cutting down shifts, he may even go the way of some of his coworkers from Mexico, China, the Philippines, and elsewhere who have returned to their countries of origin.

      “Some people here are with their families but they have to go back,” Salas told the Georgia Straight. “How can they pay rent? How can they support their families?”

      He has a two-year contract that started last spring. At present, he’s receiving compensation from WorkSafeBC for an injury. The rebar worker is due to return to work soon. “It depends,” Salas said about his chances of staying until his contract expires. “If I don’t have hours, I have to go back.”

      Salas is luckier than other temporary foreign workers. “Many workers are simply sent back if they have an accident or if they get sick,” Erika Del Carmen Fuchs told the Straight.

      Fuchs is the welcoming-communities coordinator of the Little Mountain Neighbourhood House, and she was able to help Salas with WorkSafeBC.

      According to her, many temporary workers don’t know that they have the same rights as Canadians and permanent residents in the workplace. But what bothers her more is the way these workers are regarded in general.

      “You need them when times are good but you don’t need them when times are bad,” she said, arguing that the repatriation of temporary foreign workers before the end of their contracts because of business slowdowns is a violation of labour laws.

      The country has seen a steady increase in the number of new temporary foreign workers. In less than a decade, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada figures, arrivals per year almost doubled, from 65, 978 in 1998 to 115,470 in 2007.

      In British Columbia, the number of new arrivals more than doubled from 12,085 in 1998 to 29,006 two years ago.

      The presence of these workers was largely under the radar when the economy was doing well.

      But with times getting tough, many of them have started seeking help from nonprofit groups that are funded by the federal and provincial governments to provide settlement services only for permanent residents and refugees.

      “It’s true that temporary foreign workers are not eligible for those services,” Deepa Murthy, a CIC spokesperson, said when the Straight started inquiring into the plight of these workers in January.

      Murthy added: “Settlement services are intended for people who have committed to and have been accepted for permanent settlement in Canada.”

      Also at that time, Linda O’Connor, a spokesperson for the B.C. Ministry of Advanced Education and Labour Market Development, told the Straight that employers are required to provide temporary foreign workers “certain settlement services”, like finding affordable housing.

      With the economic downturn, nonprofits involved in settlement programs for permanent residents are feeling the need to respond more to the concerns of temporary workers who come to their offices.

      For one, laid-off workers need to change their employment documents to enable them to change employers, according to Maria Javier, programs director of the Multicultural Helping House Society.

      Before, Javier told the Straight, it was also easier for them to refer the workers to new employers. “The problem now is we can’t find jobs for them,” she said.

      Saleem Spindari is the community-outreach-program coordinator of the Multilingual Orientation Service Association for Immigrant Communities. MOSAIC has taken the initiative to put up a drop-in centre for temporary workers.

      “Unfortunately, there are not many services directed for temporary foreign workers,” Spindari told the Straight. “The government brings them here, but there are not many services to address their needs.”

      The Affiliation of Multicultural Societies and Service Agencies of B.C. is communicating with the federal and provincial governments for support in addressing the needs of temporary foreign workers.

      “In a way, they reflect what a landed immigrant needs,” AMSSA program director Timothy Welsh told the Straight. “You need housing, you need access to financial systems, help around children’s schooling, and then there’s social participation. I mean, when you’re not working, what are you?”

      Welsh said these people have become an “invisible work force” because no one has the job of identifying and serving them.




      Mar 19, 2009 at 9:51pm

      I find this article overwhelmingly familiar, even though I am a Canadian citizen. About a year ago my boyfriend and I signed up with a temp agency and found good work at a local factory for a decent wage. I was told that I would be hired by the company I was working for after about 3 months, at which time I could enjoy a larger wage, and full dental and medical benefits.

      However, despite my repeated inquiries into a permanent position after that 3 months I was turned down. When the factory was low on work I was ordered to stay home without pay, and I soon found myself struggling to pay the medical and dental bills I was led to believe would be paid for after those initial 3 months.

      Eventually I was called at home, shortly after a hit and run left me with a broken arm, "We won't be needing you today, we don't have enough orders for you to work on".

      "Okay," I replied, "When do you expect me back to work?"

      "Maybe tomorrow."

      The next day, a Wednesday, I receive a call. "We won't be needing you today either. I'd say next Wednesday at the earliest."

      "But what about pay? I need a wage to be able to pay rent." I questioned.

      "I'm sorry, there's no work"

      A week goes by, I start printing off resumes and helping my grandmother re-decorate her apartment. I receive a a call on my cell phone, "I'm sorry, you've been laid off."

      Shocked, I scramble for words, "But what about severance pay? I've been working full time for 10 months! Surely I have some rights in cases like these!"

      The temp agency worker assures me otherwise, "I'd get a different job if I was you."

      Towards the end of my employment I was exceeding the target goals set out to me by my employer, and my attendance was better than that of the other employees. The simple fact is that I was tossed out on my rear end as soon as times got "difficult" for the company, but the fact remains that they could of happily continued to employ me and my fellow temp worker, as our manager has been only the day before had been bragging about record sales.

      Today I went off and applied for employment insurance, something I had told myself I would never do, and something foreign workers don't have the luxury of. I feel deeply ashamed of what happened to me, and furious that a multi-billion dollar corporation would use me to such a damaging extent. They treat temp workers like paper cups, using them until they get a bit soggy, or start asking for benefits like health care, and then throw them out so they can go get a fresh one.

      Yes, I a Canadian temp worker, was fired for getting hit by a car, breaking my arm, and told to "take it easy" by my doctor. As for my boyfriend and fellow temp worker, he was fired the week before, being slowed down by a urinary catheter he had to wear after surgery.