OTTAWA—At the heart of the Harper government’s 2012 budget is a “pay-less wage model” that is unfair to temporary workers from abroad and is designed to provide business with a pool of low-paid employees across Canada, labour activists said Tuesday.
Union representatives held a news conference in Ottawa to shed light on the impact on workers of far-reaching changes to Employment Insurance (EI) and the Temporary Foreign Worker Program buried in the federal government’s controversial budget legislation.
“Employers will benefit by having a pliable workforce available at a moment’s notice,” commented Naveen Mehta, general counsel and director of human rights with United Food and Commercial Workers Canada (UFCW).
He said the main thrust of the budget changes is to help business.
Hassan Yussuff, secretary-treasurer of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), said the Conservatives’ new measures will exert a “terrible downward pressure” on all workers’ wages in this country.
Full details of the new regime are only dribbling out, but the changes have already raised alarms among opposition MPs and some economists.
Of greatest concern, say critics, is the government’s move to allow employers to pay temporary highly-skilled foreign workers up to 15 per cent less (for low-skilled workers, it’s up to 5 per cent less) than the prevailing local wage under some circumstances. (The reduced wage threshold measures do not apply to temporary farm workers).
Human Resources Minister Diane Finley says the lower wages can be paid to temporary foreign workers only if the Canadian business’ other Canadian employees accept the same pay. But there is an important exception: If a company once had Canadian employees who were being paid below the average local wage but no longer has Canadian workers, as many temporary foreign workers as needed can be brought in and paid at up to 15 per cent below the local going rate, officials have disclosed.
The unions say the government is creating an unwieldy, confusing and unfair system for determining the wages of the increasing army of temporary workers from abroad now coming to Canada.
And critics say the new approach is a discriminatory system that flies in the face of Canadians’ commitment to fairness.
“Canada’s laws don’t support wage discrimination based on where you come from,” says Yasmeen Khan of MIGRANTE-Canada, an alliance of organizations supporting Filipino migrants, who comprise the largest number of temporary workers in Canada.
“Many people recognize the majority of migrant workers are people of colour and oppose wage discrimination based on race.”
Alyson Queen, a spokesperson for Finley, said the unions are misleading Canadians by saying that all temporary foreign workers will be paid less than Canadians. In most cases, she said, the new rules will ensure employers pay foreign workers the same as Canadian employees.
But union representatives say that, instead of reducing wages for temporary workers, the federal government should be expanding immigration quotas to allow skilled foreign employees to stay in Canada permanently. It does not improve the country’s long-term economic prospects to train thousands of foreign workers and then throw them out of the country after three or four years, said Mehta, of UFCW.
Concerns were also raised about measures in the budget legislation intended to pressure EI recipients to loosen their criteria for suitable employment.
On Monday, Flaherty confirmed the government intends to clamp down on EI claimants.
Flaherty said the government will expand the threshold for what is considered a suitable job for EI recipients. That means that those who pass up such employment could lose their EI benefits.
“There’ll be a broader definition and people will have to engage more in the workforce,” Flaherty told reporters.
He also indicated that he has little sympathy for EI recipients who are too picky about the jobs they will accept.
“There is no bad job — the only bad job is not having a job,” he said.
Yussuff, of the CLC, said Flaherty “wasn’t thinking” when he made those remarks about jobs.
“Canadians to a large extent want to go work, but they also want to be paid a decent salary when they go to work,” Yussuff said Tuesday.
The expected changes to EI rules reflect complaints by Conservative cabinet ministers in recent months that Canadians are passing up jobs such as Christmas tree harvesting and leaving employers to bring in foreign workers to do the jobs. But opposition MPs say it’s a waste of peoples’ skills to force them to take positions for which they are over-qualified.
In the Commons later Tuesday, the NDP demanded more information on the planned changes to EI eligibility rules and asked whether the unemployed will be forced to take jobs well below their skill level.
Citing Flaherty’s remarks on jobs, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair asked, “Does the prime minister actually agree that our teachers and our nurses should be taking jobs driving taxis rather than being given a chance to look for work in their own field?”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper replied that Canada’s job-creation record in recent years has been among the best in the industrialized world and the government wants this trend to continue.
“We anticipate the labour shortage is going to be a serious concern in the Canadian economy in the years to come and we want to make sure all Canadians have the opportunity” to work, Harper told the Commons.
Finley later provided a bit more information on how the EI changes will work. She said concerns that unemployed Canadians will be pressured to take jobs far from their homes are unfounded. “Canadians will be expected to take jobs appropriate to their skill level — in their area,” Finley said.