Foreign workers on P.E.I. ignored in heated debate about program

By Josie Baker (guest opinion)

Letters to the Editor (The Guardian)
Published on June 30, 2014

Front cover of Service Canada's temporary foreign workers information brochure for employers.

©Government of Canada image

The most recent round of changes to Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) were met with discontent in P.E.I.. In the past week we’ve heard that these changes are bad for industry, especially tourism and fishing. So far, no discussion in the P.E.I. media has focused on people, on the workers themselves.  

Community and labour groups have sounded the alarm about the Temporary Foreign Worker Program for over a decade. It is only after this program was allowed to grow unchecked and scandals have played out in national media that any pretense at action was taken by the federal government. Unfortunately, these changes demonstrate that the federal government is more interested in staging a public relations “overhaul” of the TFWP than in creating solutions to the concerns of Canadians, employers, and workers.

This government believes the public cannot see further than the tired, myopic clichés: “foreigners are taking our jobs,” and “the unemployed are too lazy to work.” Their changes to the EI program and to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program are both based on those ignorant platitudes, and both cause harm and suffering to vulnerable people in our society. We need changes that will end the two-tier workforce in Canada. Having any worker in Canada who is legally and systematically denied basic rights is bad for everyone.

These changes do not offer rights or protection to low-wage migrant workers in Canada nor the possibility of permanent immigration into our communities. Low-skill foreign workers are now more vulnerable. The new rules are in the best interest of big business and the extractive industries in Alberta that can afford the new $1,000 fee for permission to hire foreign workers. Minister Kenny’s changes will decrease the number of temporary foreign workers in P.E.I., not by offering permanent immigration status to the people who have contributed to P.E.I.’s economy over the past decade, but by forcing foreign workers out of their jobs and out of the country.

Most Islanders know little about the realities of life of foreign workers in P.E.I.. Even with a satisfactory employment situation, most foreign workers will have racked up a lot of debt by the time they arrive in Canada. Their debt to recruitment companies and government agencies typically runs  from $5,000 to $15,000.

Many migrant workers must continue to pay fees to recruitment companies during their employment in Canada. Many of the workers are still in debt, even after several years working low-wage jobs in P.E.I., while paying their bills and sending remittances to family back home.

P.E.I. is one of the few provinces with a program to nominate low-wage workers for permanent residency, but this doesn’t apply to workers in seasonal industries. Even a worker who has worked for 10 months/year at a fish plant for the past 5 years is not allowed to immigrate permanently. For workers with full time non-seasonal jobs, new rules limit their time in Canada to a maximum of two years, making it much harder for low-wage workers to qualify and apply for permanent residency.

Since the federal government has demonstrated its disinterest in the wellbeing of Atlantic Canada and of foreign workers, it is time for the province to take steps to mitigate the devastating effects of these changes on the foreign workers currently in the province. The province can help those workers who are eligible to qualify for permanent residency by loosening some of the criteria of the Critical Worker Stream of the Provincial Nominee Program. P.E.I. can also create policies and procedures to prevent employers from dismissing workers who file labour complaints, and support foreign workers whose work permits have been canceled due to the federal crackdowns on employers.

As a province, we can do better. Let’s look beyond the clichés and try to build a culture of working together to overcome our common problems.


Josie Baker is a member of the Cooper Institute, a P.E.I. education and community development centre.