EDMONTON — Rossel Macapagal often works overtime in his housekeeping job at a downtown hotel.
That’s fine with him. He’s sending much of his salary to his wife and three children in the Philippines to give them a better life.
Macapagal, 30, is grateful for his chance to come to Edmonton as a temporary foreign worker, as are his two roommates from the Philippines. He would like to stay and bring his family to Canada.
As a temporary foreign worker, that’s unlikely. His two-year contract has been renewed until February next year. After that, his options are limited.
Macapagal is exactly the kind of worker Alberta Employment and Immigration Minister Thomas Lukaszuk has in mind when he talks of shifting to more immigration and fewer temporary foreign workers to solve the province’s labour shortage.
A skilled or unskilled foreign worker who already holds a permanent job is a good immigration prospect because “you know he’s needed,” Lukaszuk said.
“If it works out and the employer needs him, why not let him stay? Why ship him home and then bring in someone else to train?”
Macapagal has one possible option. He could qualify for landed immigrant status under the provincial nominee program. In fact, he has made a joint application with his employer.
“If successful, I could apply to bring my family,” he said, a prospect that brings a smile to his face.
But there’s a federally imposed ceiling of 5,000 applicants under this program for Alberta. Lukaszuk is pushing the Harper government to raise the cap.
The provincial nominee program allows employers to recruit specialized workers for jobs specific to Alberta. The job offer can also bring landed immigrant status with it. Or a worker already here — whose job is indeed permanent — can apply jointly with the employer for nominee status. Final approval rests with Ottawa.
Macapagal is hopeful. His hours are steady and his employer has been generous and helpful.
Though he had a job in the Philippines, Macapagal had known for years he would have to work overseas to earn enough to help his family get ahead. He worked for eight months in the Middle East, then a few years ago was accepted under the temporary work program for Edmonton.
Alberta will need an estimated 77,000 workers within the next decade, many of them long-term, Lukaszuk said.
Canada’s birth rate does not replace the population. That fact, combined with retiring baby boomers and a stronger economy, means Alberta needs more permanent workers, Lukaszuk said.
The temporary program is not a long-term solution.
Lukaszuk also has concerns about the negative social impact of short-term jobs.
The workers live in transient communities and don’t integrate into society. They send up to 80 per cent of their salary back home rather than spending it here, take up a lot of rental accommodation and are separated from their families for long periods.
“So your ask yourself, can we do things differently?” said Lukaszuk, himself an immigrant. “We can do better than that.”
Earlier this summer, Lukaszuk travelled to the Philippines on a volunteer project with friends from a Castle Downs community league and saw first-hand the difficulties faced by families left behind.
During those weeks, he met many people who had family members working in Canada.
“The divorce rate is high, people change when they are away, some start new relationships,” Lukaszuk said.
Though increasing immigration can be a sensitive topic, Lukaszuk is confident people would be open to the idea as long as they are reassured all Canadians are fully employed first, including underemployed groups like aboriginals, disabled people and women.
“I think Albertans will support this. That’s the way this province was built.
“We didn’t give people land, have them break the soil and pick the rocks and send them home.”
Terry Andriuk, at the Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, agreed with the minister that the current program brings a new set of problems.
She runs support services for temporary workers in partnership with Catholic Social Services.
Most workers who come to her office are afraid to complain or talk publicly, fearful their employers might object, she said. Their issues vary — employers who pay less than a contract stated, or don’t pay at all, or workers who get injured on the job. Or they get laid off and may lose housing.
On her desk are vouchers for the food bank, information about language classes and brochures on unemployment insurance. More than 1,200 workers seek help each year.
Andriuk, whose office also helps employers with paperwork to renew contracts, would be happy to see a shift to more immigration mostly, to give the workers opportunity in Canada.
Yessy Byl, a lawyer and advocate for temporary foreign workers, said more immigration would be welcome.
The longer the temporary work program remains, the more it establishes a second tier of workers in society, similar to the guest workers in Europe that make up a permanent underclass, she said.
“The attitude is they are expendable.”
Also, no one knows how many temporary foreign workers have gone underground since the downturn hit two years ago, she added.
When they lost their contract jobs, many looked for anything here “because there are no jobs for them back home,” Byl said.
But that leaves them vulnerable to exploitation — employers lower wages and provide no benefits. They also live without health care and other services, she added.
Canadian Border Services says it deports 250 to 300 people from Edmonton a month, but that number includes criminals (about 10 per cent), failed refugee claimants, illegal immigrants, student visa violators and “overstays” — workers who stay beyond their contract.
“For the most part, people do leave when they are supposed to,” said spokeswoman Lisa White, adding the agency does not keep track of how many foreign workers leave when their contracts expire.
Byl said the federal government recently added a stiff language requirement to some trades people applying for permanent residency.
If fluency in French or English had been required in the past, many people here today would not have been accepted, she said.
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said the foreign worker program was expanded in the early 2000s to meet short-term demand. It was supposed to be a program of last resort for employers facing a temporary labour shortage.
But it is becoming a permanent solution for big employers and multinational corporations, who want to bring in a lower paid workforce on big projects, including the oilsands. But that’s not good for Canadians or the economy, he said.
“Canada is a resource-based economy and one way Canadians benefit is by getting jobs on these projects.
“Instead, we’ve turned large swaths of the economy into a remittance economy.”
“On this program, I’m cheering for the minister,” McGowan added.
“This (temporary) program is fatally flawed and we should bring people in as immigrants.”
© Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal
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