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.