by Jasmin So-Armada
- Canada -
Walk into a convenience store, coffee shop or supermarket in Calgary and chances are you’ll be waited on by a temporary foreign worker (TFW). Though they come from many countries, they share one story: relocation for the chance to earn decent wages, and in some cases, the hope to reside permanently in Canada. “There is a wide variety of TFWs that come to Alberta - from skilled laborers like welders and carpenters, to pipe fitters to semi skilled trades like cleaners. These are men and women from all parts of the globe,” says Avnish Mehta, Program Coordinator of the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society’s (CCIS) Temporary Foreign Worker Integration Advisory Office.
Alberta’s TFW program is driven by employer demand for workers. “These companies are the ones moving the program forward,” Mehta says, “but of course, there are laws and regulations set out by the Alberta government.” Employers must prove that they have tried to attract Canadian workers with the skill sets needed to do a specific job before they can hire TFWs. This has helped prevent resentment among Albertans since TFWs are in the province to meet the labor shortage, not to take their jobs.
Based on last year's numbers, the province expects to have received at least 35,000 TFWs by 2009, mostly from the Philippines, Mexico and the USA. Other TFW sources include Australia and the UK, with a growing number of Chinese, South Asians and Eastern Europeans. The opportunity to make a living wage and send money home is the main reason TFWs are arriving in droves in Alberta.
The choice to come to Alberta is obvious: the province is blessed with both natural oil and gas reserves and an unmatched quality of life that is the envy of many countries. “Most of the TFWs have existing networks in Calgary and Edmonton. They know people who work in these cities plus the work they’re looking for is in these [urban centers],” says Mehta.
But coming to Alberta is not without its problems. Most newcomers experience feelings of cultural isolation, slow acclimatization to the language and the region’s extreme weather, and even differences in work practices. Integration is undoubtedly a slow process. Moreover, because TFWs come to Alberta for work-related reasons, it is easy for them to fall into a cycle limited to work and home, day in and day out. “They’ve left their families, their friends, their networks and if they’re unable to connect with a larger community, then feelings of isolation can occur,” says Mehta.
For its part, CCIS has made inroads to help integrate TFWs through government, community and even recreation programs. “We try to introduce resources that are important to the TFWs so they can begin creating their own networks,” says Mehta. “A lot of our workshops revolve around creating [personal] budgets, streamlining their resumes, and integrating into the fiber of Canadian life,” he says.
One major roadblock, however, is the availability of affordable housing. “Oftentimes there is not a realistic idea of how expensive the city is, so when TFWs start looking at their hourly rate, it looks great until they realize their take home pay is much less than anticipated,” says Mehta.
TFWs also face discrimination, sometimes in the workplace. “It comes down to not knowing what their rights are as workers so they are taken advantage of,” says Mehta. Many TFWs are concerned about a whole host of employment related issues, such as when jobs they’ve been promised are not exactly the jobs they’re offered once they arrive in Alberta.
Jay B. arrived in Canada last year and first worked as a crewmember at a Grande Prairie fast food store, but says he wasn’t getting enough pay to help support his family back in the Philippines. He then moved to Calgary hoping to find better work, and landed his current job as a residential stucco installer in February 2008. Jay says he isn’t complaining, but finds the work very hard considering he was an electrician back home. “The hardest part is mixing cement and working outdoors,” he says, adding that his body has already adjusted to the physical work.
What Jay misses most is his wife and two kids. Now in his early 30s, Jay still has two more years before his contract expires and he realizes that applying as a permanent resident depends on whether he can find more skilled work and if his company will allow him to study. Jay appreciates what Canada has to offer and given the chance, would like to bring his family over. His positive attitude is what makes him stronger. “I’ve come to the conclusion that since I’m the first to come, I know there is a lot of difficulty and sacrifice,” he says.
Unlike other TFWs who have never traveled or experienced life in a developed country, Jaraslova C. is from the Czech Republic and already had the chance to study and work abroad before deciding to apply as a TFW in Alberta. “I visited Canada 11 years ago and I really liked what I saw,” she recalls. She knew that it would take her several years if she applied as an independent immigrant, so she decided to take the shorter route and signed up with a Slovakian agency to get a working visa for a manufacturing company in Calgary.
With a business diploma from Australia, supplemented by a therapeutic massage certificate from the Czech Republic, Jaraslova felt she was better prepared to apply for a working visa. What she didn’t bargain for were the problems she would face when she got to Calgary last summer. “When I arrived, I learned that I was not supposed to give the agency the atrocious amount of money they had taken so I could work here,” she says. Adding insult to injury, the job she landed was not the job she signed up for. Her employers threatened to send her back to the Czech Republic if she looked for work elsewhere. “A lot of people I work with don’t complain because many are hoping to stay in Canada as permanent residents. They fear they will lose their visas if they speak up,” she says. Most of those recruited by such agencies do not speak English and are unable to ask for help.
“I was told when I came here that I had no rights whatsoever.” But Jaraslova was savvy enough to look for the right information and found help at the CCIS TFW Integration Advisory Office. “I speak English and I know I can help myself. I only wish I could protect other people and tell them not to be frightened because there is help,” she says.
Though there have been reports of unscrupulous agency recruiters who abuse their power, many of these offenses go unreported because TFWs refuse to come forward and file a complaint, fearing they would be sent back home. The CCIS-TFWI Advisory Office is fully aware of employer abuses and investigates the issues thoroughly to make sure they are getting the whole story. “As much as we’re a resource to TFWs, we are not a whistle-blowing agency. We are not here to fight on behalf of one group or the other. We want to ensure that the community as a whole works properly,” says Mehta. But when they do hear about TFW abuses, Mehta says their program engages the government as quickly as possible. “That’s our work as a TFW advisory, and we do have the resources to help TFWs get on their feet.”
The majority of TFWs understand that theirs is a temporary labor program, but that doesn’t deter them from hoping they will somehow gain permanent residency. For those that qualify, the Alberta government offers the Alberta Immigrant Nominee Program (AINP), which allows employers to nominate a deserving TFW for permanent status. Of the 37,257 TFWs that were processed last year, the Alberta government issued 1,658 certificates for provincial nominations (no official figures exist for the total number of TFWs nominated by their employers). Because of the government's stringent clearance requirements (medical, security, etc.), of these nominations, 97% were approved for permanent residence under various skill categories. The government’s goal is to double the number of nominations for the coming fiscal year.
Alberta has not been immune to the current global financial crunch and it certainly will affect the labor market; many TFWs are going home. But Mehta says so long as employers are willing to support the TFW program, the opportunity to work is still out there for people who have a large skill base and can adapt to life in Alberta. “For those who come with their families and can navigate the system, it’s an incredible country to be in. We are truly blessed to be here, so why wouldn’t we think that somebody else would want the same opportunity?”
About the Author
Jasmin So-Armada is a Filipino-Canadian freelance writer with over 17 years of writing experience. She currently writes feature stories for home building magazines in Calgary and creates content for websites in Calgary and the United States. Some of her works have appeared in the Neighbours section of the Calgary Herald.
Jasmin previously worked as a television scriptwriter and producer for two award winning business and agriculture shows in Manila and has written syndicated stories for the India-based Women’s Feature Service in the early 90s. She has written pieces on architecture, travel and culture, and works of fiction for leading magazines in Manila and published a short romance novel in her native language in the early 90s. Jasmin was nominated in 1994 by the Philippine’s Catholic Mass Media Awards (CMMA) for a feature story on environmentalism.