This is the last in a three-part series about a group of temporary foreign workers with a Prince Edward Island farm company.
Part 1: Temporary foreign workers rescued from abusive situation on P.E.I. farm
Part 2: How an immigrant association helped a group of temporary foreign workers on P.E.I.
Stories of trouble at a farming company on P.E.I. are an indication Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program has been needing change, says federal Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Sean Fraser.
CBC News has been told at least 22 temporary foreign workers from a single farming company have been granted open work permits, and has spoken to two of them directly. The open work permit program was initiated in 2019 to allow workers to leave their sponsoring employer if they are in an abusive situation.
Fraser said employers using the program must be held to account if they are not behaving properly.
“If that employer is not treating the employee with dignity and respect, we absolutely need to make sure that that employee has access to work for other employers,” he said.
“We cannot create a situation that allows employers, with impunity, to have their workers become destitute while they’re on the payroll of a particular employer.”
The granting of open work permits for people sponsored to work at the Prince Edward Island farming company goes back to 2020, according to advocates who have assisted workers there, but there is no indication the company has suffered any repercussions from having so many workers granted permission to leave.
Service Canada publishes a list of workplaces that have failed inspections. The last failed inspection on P.E.I., at a veterinary pharmaceutical manufacturer, was listed in 2018.
Allegations of serious infractions are investigated by Canada Border Services Agency, or CBSA.
In an email to CBC News, CBSA said it is not the agency’s practice to confirm or deny details of ongoing investigations.
“What I can tell you is that, depending on the evidence available and other factors including public interest, CBSA may conduct criminal investigations when employers and/or organizers are found to have wilfully circumvented the [Immigration and Refugee Protection Act],” the email said.
“Examples of such offences may include unlawful employment of foreign nationals or counselling misrepresentation.”
Fraser acknowledged there are problems with the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, but he said the government is working to address them.
In a report in December, focused on the enforcement of pandemic protocols for temporary foreign workers, Auditor General Karen Hogan found serious shortcomings in the inspection regime for companies making use of the program. The government’s response, Fraser said, is to strengthen workplace inspections for all facets of the program.
That’s being done “not just to speed up the process, but to make sure it happens with a lot more consistency,” he said.
Changes in enforcement include improved training and guidance for inspectors. An escalation process has also been created to ensure action will be taken within 48 hours in cases where the health and safety of workers might be at risk.
However, there are no current plans for surprise inspections of workplaces, Fraser said.
Workers released quickly, consequences take time
Advocates for the rights of temporary foreign workers are concerned that companies currently receive advance notice of most inspections, and can thus set themselves up to pass.
Fraser said the system is set up to get workers out of problem situations quickly, but it takes longer to arrange inspections and levy any sanctions as a result of what is found on the work site.
“There would be a lag between getting the worker into a situation where they can support themselves and before there will be a proper investigation, enforcement mechanism against the employer,” said Fraser.
In contrast, open work permit decisions are made quickly, often within a week, he noted.
Permanent gaps, temporary workers
While specific changes are being made, a more broad-based approach to reform is also required, said Fraser.
That includes changes when it comes to recruiting foreign employees, he said.
Over time, it’s become a program to fill permanent gaps in the labour force with temporary workers. I think we can do better.– Sean Fraser
“The Temporary Foreign Workers Program, at its inception, was designed to bring workers in to fill temporary gaps in the labour force. Over time, it’s become a program to fill permanent gaps in the labour force with temporary workers,” he said.
“I think we can do better.”
In June, Fraser announced his department was developing new pathways to permanent residency for people in Canada under temporary permits. The announcement of a new program is expected as early as next month.
Eliza MacLauchlan of the Cooper Institute, who helped many of the temporary foreign workers disentangle themselves from the P.E.I. farming company, agrees fundamental change is needed.
But she doesn’t think improved enforcement will solve a problem at the heart of the temporary foreign worker program: the tying of workers to one particular employer.
“We are dealing with folks that are very isolated and … quite dependent on their employer. They are in rural areas,” said MacLauchlan.
“Sometimes their only contact on the Island is with the employer that they are working for.”
Program expensive for employers
That particular aspect of the program is difficult to change, said Fraser, because it is at the heart of how it works.
Employers face a significant investment of time and money to bring in temporary foreign workers, including completing a labour market impact assessment (LMIA), paying a fee for that process, and incurring the expense of recruiting workers and bringing them to Canada.
The workers must also be provided with accommodation at minimal cost.
“When an employer goes through that process, they want to have some certainty that they’re going to have access to the worker at the end of the day, so they don’t incur great cost and expend a lot of energy to bring a worker here, who crosses the street and works for a competing business,” said Fraser.
‘A complete answer’
That is not to say, however, that change is not possible.
Because temporary workers are now filling permanent labour market gaps, Fraser said now is a good time to explore new pathways to permanent residency.
There’s no shortage of different ways that we can get people here.— Sean Fraser
“When they have the ability to pursue permanent residency, that is a complete answer for them to be able to work for different employers,” said Fraser.
He is also interested in finding new ways to bring temporary foreign workers in, beyond employer sponsorship. These could include allowing family members of current temporary foreign workers to come to Canada, or expanding the ability of international students to work.
“There’s no shortage of different ways that we can get people here and potentially have the opportunity [for them] to work for different employers,” said Fraser.
“I think that the time is probably right now to both lessen the burden on employers, but also create more freedom for employees to work.”
Demographic changes including an aging Canadian population mean labour shortages are expected to continue. In response, Fraser said the federal government will need to get creative about bringing in new workers from abroad.
New starts for Thi and Van
Meanwhile, the two workers CBC News spoke to this summer have since found new employment, thanks to the open work permit process.
The workers spoke on the condition they not be named. They fear retribution against their families in Vietnam from the Vietnamese agent who arranged for them to come to Canada, and don’t want the farm company’s other workers to face retaliation. (CBC News conducted the interviews in Vietnamese, and translated what they said to provide the quotes below.)
The employees said that for months, they were left to fend for themselves without the work shifts, pay and lodgings that the temporary foreign worker program requires an employer to provide.
One of the workers, who we will call Van, left P.E.I. after getting his open work permit. He works for a restaurant.
“Life is better now,” he said. “I left everything behind on P.E.I., and now I’m starting from scratch, trying to collect work hours.”
The other worker, who we will call Thi, also left P.E.I. after getting permission to do so at the end of April. She is now working as a housekeeper.
“Life is good for now. I finally have income and can pay rent now,” she said. “The work is tough. Every day I have to clean out about 15 rooms, but at least I’m getting paid.”
Both are hoping to apply for permanent residency in the future, but feel they wasted months on P.E.I. while waiting to start collecting the hours of work they need to start that process.