OTTAWA—José Sicajau, a Guatemalan man of Indigenous descent, had grown accustomed to exploitative conditions after several years as a Temporary Foreign Worker growing vegetables on a farm in Saint-Michel, Quebec, less than an hour south of Montreal.
But when his boss allegedly attacked a Mexican co-worker in 2006, striking him with an aluminum pole because the assembly of an irrigation system was not going as planned, Sicajau ran out of patience.
“That was the end for me,” said Sicajau, 45, speaking through a translator in November. He was in Ottawa with a delegation of human rights activists, touring the region to denounce the program that first brought him to Canada nearly a decade ago.
Some advocates for migrants want the Temporary Foreign Worker Program abolished, calling it racist and exploitative. Unions say the program is designed to weaken labour power in Canada. The NDP calls it a flawed system that takes jobs from Canadians. But business leaders say it is key to economic growth.
Canada is receiving more Temporary Foreign Workers (TFWs) than ever. The Low-Skill Pilot Project—a TFW stream that bars workers from applying for permanent residency—grew by over 2,000 per cent between 2002 and 2010.
TFWs now work in nearly every sector of the Canadian economy: in kitchens and hotels, in the tar sands and on construction sites.
Nearly 30,000 "low-skilled" TFWs were in Canada in 2010, according to an October report published by Maytree, a left-leaning think tank.
And changes made in 2011 to the Low-Skill Pilot Project prevent workers from remaining in Canada for more than four years. Once their time has run out, these changes to the law prohibit them from working in Canada again until six years have passed, according to Joey Caluguay, a community organizer with the Immigrant Workers Centre, a non-profit group in Montreal.
Caluguay says the TFW program should be abolished and the economy transformed so that workers are free from the vagaries of the marketplace.
“You don’t create an economy where disposable workers are necessary, or where exploiting workers makes the economy run,” says Caluguay, who provides support to TFWs in the Montreal area, including Filipino machinists and Jamaican landscapers.
Experts predict that in 2015, when visas expire under the new law, a huge number of migrants may remain in Canada as undocumented workers, making them vulnerable to unrestrained abuse at the hands of employers and unable to access social services, says Naomi Alboim, Professor of policy studies at Queen's University and co-author of the Maytree report.
"They're already in a very precarious position," says Alboim. "Once they become undocumented, that will increase very significantly."
In Guatemala City, Sicajau co-founded an association committed to defending the rights of migrants after his experience in Canada's Low-Skill Pilot Project. He says the number of Guatemalans in this “low-skill” stream reached 6,000 last year.
Ten years ago, he was among the first.
A farmer by trade, he worked a plot of land with his family in rural Guatemala, raising corn and vegetables before learning about the TFW program from a food-export co-operative.
He would leave his wife, children and grandchildren for months at a time to work in Canada. Then the alleged attack by his employer prompted him and his co-workers to file a complaint with Quebec’s labour standards board. The complaint was rejected for lack of evidence, despite the testimony of three migrant workers, a decision Sicajau attributes to racism.
When he returned to Guatemala, the head of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) demanded that he retract the complaint, according to Sicajau.
When he refused, he says, the agency blacklisted him. Since then, the IOM has been replaced by the Foundation for Entrepreneurs Recruiting Foreign Agricultural Workers (FERME), an association of Quebec farmers with an agency operating in Guatemala.
“We gave our everything to work here and to help support the Canadians,” Sicajau says. “And as a consequence of denouncing this, we’re kicked out of the program.”
He added that the head of the IOM who allegedly threatened him now works for FERME.
To Sicajau, the importance of the work performed by so-called "low skilled" workers in Canada—such as farm labour—is underrated.
"Farming is very difficult because you have to work the land, you have to remove the rocks and stones, you have to plant your seeds and tend to the earth," Sicajau says. "It's sacred work that they do to put food on the table."
Adrian Smith, a Professor of law and legal studies at Carleton University and a member of the non-profit group Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW), says TFWs are vulnerable to exploitation because their visa is linked to a single employer. Rocking the boat can lead to deportation.
"You have to put up with the nonsense that the employer imposes on you," Smith says.
Some TFWs have been killed in Canada, like 39-year-old Jamaican farm labourer Ned Livingston Peart, who was crushed by an iron bin while trying to load a tobacco kiln. Others have been injured while performing dangerous work, or have grown ill from exposure to pesticides.
Indigenous people like Sicajau often find themselves pushed into migrant labour by grinding poverty, ecological destruction and political violence, Smith adds. These conditions make people willing to tolerate abusive employers overseas.
Smith argues that wealthy countries contribute to these conditions through policies like free trade agreements that allow corporations to run rampant. Canada, he says, should allow migrants to stay.
But Conservative MP Rick Dykstra defended the restrictions imposed on migrant workers when questioned by The Dominion as he paused in the lobby outside the House of Commons before a vote.
"Temporary foreign worker program," said Dykstra, a member of the House of Commons immigration committee. "It's not a path to permanent residency."
When asked to justify this policy, Dykstra said: “We need folks to do the work, and there's an opportunity for [TFWs] to fulfil that obligation.”
Dykstra said he was unaware of any TFWs being abused. He also said any employer that abused a worker would be blacklisted. The "ineligible employers" list has been blank since it appeared on the Immigration Canada website in 2011.
Top industry associations have praised the TFW program for addressing what they call an acute labour shortage in Canada.
The Canadian Council of Chief Executives, in a July 2012 report, called labour shortages “one of the greatest threats” to potential development of energy resources, including the burgeoning oil and gas sector—although unemployment rates have remained stubbornly high, especially among youth.
The report also hailed “the proposed expansion of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.”
Rapid tar sands development has meant the job market has been in recruitment mode in Alberta, but labour shortages have developed across the country, according to Corinne Pohlmann, Vice-President of National Affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
"The Temporary Foreign Worker Program became a very important tool for employers to fill those gaps," Pohlmann says, adding that many businesses want the process sped up.
Before issuing a temporary visa to a migrant worker, Service Canada is supposed to check whether the employer has attempted to train or hire Canadians.
The bureaucratic process made headlines in October with reports that a Vancouver-based mining corporation had recruited 200 low-paid Chinese workers after posting ads seeking Mandarin-speaking workers. Critics called this a clear signal that the company never intended to hire Canadian workers.
The story of the mine workers became a political football in the House of Commons, with NDP Immigration Critic Jinny Sims saying those jobs should belong to Canadians.
Sims did not reply to an interview request, but stated during Question Period in December that “Canadian jobs are still being given away” under the TFW program.
Nearly 30 per cent of all new jobs created between 2007 and 2011 were for TFWs, according to Canadian Auto Workers Economist Jim Stanford.
Stanford argues that the program puts downward pressure on wages because employers are allowed to pay TFWs up to 15 per cent less than the average local wage earned by Canadians.
Groups including the Alberta Federation of Labour have called the TFW program an effort to drive down wages and working conditions while bypassing unions.
According to Alboim, many of those jobs could employ people who tend to struggle with unemployment, including refugees and new immigrants. "There are people in this country for whom these jobs would be important entries to the labour market," Alboim says. She argues that the Low-Skilled Pilot Project should be abolished.
To Smith, Canada's temporary worker schemes summon memories of the 19th century, when Chinese labourers were recruited to perform the most dangerous and low-paying work on the construction of the railway.
“Over time, we have used so-called foreign labour to do the heavy lifting of this country, to develop much of the infrastructure," says Smith. "It's incumbent on us to open up our conception of who belongs, [of] who's a citizen."
David Koch is a freelance writer living in Gatineau.