Ashil Chandra took his place in a slow, shuffling line at the Canada Customs counter in Vancouver. Outside, the streets were slick with a January drizzle, and he found himself shivering beneath a light spring jacket and jeans. He was tired but happy, even jubilant, and he tried to maintain a measured comportment in the presence of the stern-looking Customs agent who was eyeballing his year-long work visa. A rubber stamp-just a formality, a souvenir, he thought-and he'd be on his way to his final destination, Edmonton.
Chandra had flown 18 hours-from halfway around the world-to join a growing legion of temporary foreign workers riding the biggest boom Alberta has ever seen. He'd responded to an ad in a newspaper in his native Fiji, and was wooed to Canada by recruiters with the promise of a position in a high-end restaurant and more riches than he could ever make in his job as a fine-dining chef back home. An added bonus, one to dream about: He'd been told the stint would give him a chance to become a full-fledged Canadian citizen. Chandra, 26, saw it as a chance to move up the food chain, to add another trophy to his collection of culinary awards. Maybe one day his name would appear on the menu: "Prepared by chef Ashil Chandra."
The Canada Customs agent shuffled Chandra's papers neatly into a pile before pausing, peering at the chef with a look of mild bemusement, curiosity and, in conduct almost unbecoming his post, pity. "You've come a long way to be a breakfast cook," he said.
For a moment, Chandra stood mutely gaping at the official with his mouth open like a freshly plated sea bass. "Holy shit!" he finally sputtered. "I'm a breakfast cook?"
It was in this instant that the undersized chef, standing all of 5 feet 5 inches tall and barely broad enough to fill out an apron, discovered he'd given up duck à l'orange for Strawberry Dream Waffles, béchamel for pancake batter, to be served up at Smitty's, a chain of family restaurants celebrated across the West for their all-day breakfasts.
That he'd come such a long way to be a short-order cook wasn't the worst of it. Before long, Chandra would realize he had fallen out of the frying pan and into the fire.
This wasn't the way it was supposed to turn out. When federal government officials first sat down to figure out a way to address a labour shortage that was affecting thousands of companies and employers in Canada at the beginning of this decade, they envisioned a scheme that would be a boon to big business, small entrepreneurs and a global pool of workers. Corporations would have access to the employees they desperately needed, and workers from other countries could share in Canada's economic prosperity, reaping the rewards of a turbo-charged economy while gaining invaluable international work experience. At least, that was how it was supposed to unfold when, in 2002, Jean Chrétien's Liberal government unveiled new legislation that marked a significant shift away from Canada's traditionally protectionist approach toward labour market regulation. Instead of emphasizing the adverse effect of hiring foreign workers, the new Immigration and Refugee Protection Act called for an evaluation of the overall impact of a foreign hire-including the potential benefits to an employer. Officially, the shift was aimed at boosting the number of highly skilled professionals, but growing demand for low-skilled workers led to a surge of applications from employers who needed them, especially in the West. In Alberta, the slow trickle of foreign workers, whose numbers had totalled approximately 9,000 in 2000, turned into a steady stream of more than 16,000 by 2005.
And then the oil boom hit, sparking a new round of refinements to the program that is helping turn the stream of foreign migrants into a flood. Labour-force statistics reinforced what everyone already knew: More than 62,000 full- and part-time jobs went unfilled in Alberta in the last quarter of 2006 alone. Employers like Don Sroka, president of Lavtor Holdings, which owns a group of Smitty's franchises, were desperate. "I have 12 locations with 727 positions, and we're 150 staff short. That's 12 per store. That's how serious it is," Sroka told a restaurant industry publication last year. "Instead of most places advertising their dinner specials, they are advertising for cooks." Sroka was recruiting line cooks to work in his north Edmonton restaurant for $11.74 an hour-$3.74 more than the province's current minimum wage-but he couldn't find any takers. And while businesses like Smitty's were starved for workers in the short term, the outlook for the future was even bleaker: By 2025, the Conference Board of Canada warned, Alberta will be short 330,000 workers. The news was just as bad beyond the province's borders: In June, Bank of Canada Governor David Dodge announced that labour's contribution to Canada's overall economic growth would decline as the first wave of baby boomers started taking retirement in 2009. Their mass exodus, coupled with a low birth rate, would eventually spell labour troubles right across the country.
So when Human Resources Minister Monte Solberg made his way to a microphone last November to announce the federal government's plans to address the labour situation, business leaders listened nervously. Any concerns they had about the current government's undermining employers' access to foreign labour were quickly allayed: "It doesn't matter whether you're in Camrose or Calgary, Edson or Edmonton, 'Help Wanted' signs are everywhere," Solberg said. Then he evoked a scene that would rile any red-blooded Canadian: "When it starts to affect our ability to go to Tim Hortons and get a double-double, it ceases to be a laughing matter."
In the face of the latest crunch, Solberg introduced changes to the program that streamlined the upfront requirements placed on employers to establish that they'd looked for Canadian workers to fill their positions. Instead of having to advertise extensively in local and regional papers to prove they couldn't find workers, seven days in the government job bank would now suffice for employers in Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario, where the shortages are most acute. The new rules applied to a pool of unskilled to highly skilled labour-170 "occupations under pressure" in Alberta, 129 in B.C. and 25 in Ontario. The jobs ranged from doctors and engineers to pipefitters, boilermakers, bricklayers, hotel clerks, maids and line cooks, as well as actors and comedians in B.C. as the province gears up to host the 2010 Olympics.
Government officials also promised to expedite waiting periods for bringing workers in, shaving several weeks off a process that often took months. It also extended work visas for some jobs from one year to two, and set up special offices in Calgary and Vancouver to smooth the process. The changes paved the way for a surging migration: During the fiscal year ended March 31, 2007, approximately 31,000 applications for temporary foreign workers were processed in Alberta-with an additional 9,000 outstanding-compared to a total of 12,000 during the previous year. The rapid rise was symbolic: The 2007 figure eclipsed the number of permanent immigrants who gained entry into the province for the first time in history. And it suggested that Canada is seeing an unprecedented wave of temporary workers. Truck drivers from England and Scotland are arriving to drive rigs in Ontario. South American construction workers have been building Vancouver's Golden Ears Bridge. Workers from China have been recruited to Alberta's construction industry and to Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.'s Horizon Oil Sands project. Russian workers are heading to the Maritimes to work at one of the world's largest lobster-processing facilities, in Prince Edward Island. (The lists of occupations under pressure streamline processing in Ontario, Alberta and B.C., however employers in any province can still apply to bring in temporary workers.) But while companies are happy to fill their jobs, many are loath to discuss their participation in the program. Tim Hortons, Flint Energy, Canadian Natural Resources and Nexen-Opti Canada Ltd. all declined requests to talk about the recruitment of guest workers for this story. Citing privacy concerns, Human Resources Development Canada (the federal department that grants employers permission to hire foreign workers under the temporary foreign worker program) also refused to release the names of companies with guest workers on their payrolls. Until recently, however, people like Don Sroka at Smitty's were only too happy to tell anyone who would listen about their recruitment efforts-as well as their frustrations.
There's so much red tape," Sroka complained to Pacific/Prairie Restaurant News before Solberg's changes were announced. "I have 150 chefs from five-star hotels in other countries begging…to get in." Smitty's needed a rush order. The company had waited months for its workers to arrive after submitting its application to HRDC, outlining how many line cooks it planned to hire, along with documents showing that it had tried to fill the jobs with Canadians. The company had partnered with Foreign Recruitment Specialists, an Alberta broker owned and operated by a former immigration officer, which promised to help Smitty's overcome any obstacles in navigating the system and finding workers.
Solberg's changes to the system may have come just at the right time: By December, 2006, Sroka's first wave of chefs had landed in Edmonton with great pomp and circumstance. As the group of guest workers made their way through the glass doors at the Edmonton International Airport and into the glare of the TV lights, they were surprised to find the commotion was just for them.
"They are qualified chefs-so this is huge for us," Smitty's representative Dorine Kielly beamed into a camera while her jet-lagged young cooks stood smiling behind her. A fresh-faced 21-year-old said he couldn't wait to finally get down to work. "This is something you don't get in Fiji," said Kam Kunal.
By the time Ashil Chandra walked through those same glass doors a month later, the story had fallen from the front pages of the local newspaper and off the nightly newscasts. There were no company representatives at the airport-just a recruiter. Chandra would finally get to meet executives two days later at his first day of orientation, when Rob Sroka, the company's controller, walked into a room of new recruits and loudly pronounced: "It's good to have you guys. Welcome to Canada. Welcome to the Smitty's family." Maybe he couldn't tell that some of their smiles were forced. These family members had arrived in the new country expecting more.
Canadians have long looked dubiously at countries recruiting guest workers to do menial jobs. And when ethnic clashes have flared between full-fledged citizens of those countries and temporary workers-recent conflicts have involved Turkish labourers in Germany and Asian workers in the Persian Gulf-we shudder collectively. So, many Canadians were ashamed to recall a piece of our own history that resurfaced last year at around the same time that Monte Solberg was unveiling his ramped-up foreign worker program. Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced he wanted to right a terrible historical wrong. Government staff were soon postmarking thousands of cheques as part of a long-overdue apology to the families of Chinese immigrants who came to Canada in the early part of the 20th century. They'd come to build the national railway, earning half the wages of white workers. Once the railway was completed, the federal government moved to stem the flow of Chinese workers' families into the country by imposing a head tax on newcomers that was equivalent to two years' wages. Harper hoped that his formal apology, combined with the payment, would shut the door on a shameful chapter of Canada's past.
The timing of the announcement wasn't lost on organized labour-especially in B.C., where Canadian Dehua International Mines Group had just announced it planned to staff a new operation with 300 workers from China. "In Canada, some of our worst moments were temporary foreign worker programs," charged Jim Sinclair, president of the British Columbia Federation of Labour. "We don't want to go down that road again."
Still, many employers believe they can improve on history rather than repeat it-people such as Don Oborowsky, president and CEO of Waiward Steel Fabricators, who has hired dozens of temporary foreign workers for his Edmonton-based company over the past year. Production is up. Workers are happy. The results couldn't have been better scripted-not that Oborowsky wants to relive the past two years. The company first began to feel the labour squeeze in late 2005, when 50 employees were poached by companies operating in the oil patch and offering $2 to $5 an hour more than the going rate of about $30 an hour. For weeks, Waiward ran ads in the local paper's Help Wanted section. But Oborowsky's company was competing with 50 other employers running ads in the same pages for the same welder. "It's been the issue for everyone here," he explains. "We were at a critical juncture-even a crisis."
In the spring, the company filed an application to bring in temporary foreign workers. The first 25 arrived in May from Austria, Romania and Germany, followed by a trickle of another 18 workers over the next few months. A dozen more are slated to come this fall. On arrival days, Oborowsky can be seen on the shop floor handing out golf shirts to his new foreign recruits, as if he believes that by wrapping his guest workers in the company logo, he can make them part of the fabric of his work force, part of the Waiward family.
And at a golf course in Calgary, Scott Atkinson jokes that his handicap is in the high 70s but that his real handicap has been his staff shortage. The general manager of the HeatherGlen course says he needed 23 workers to get the operation running at full tilt. But last summer, he could only find 10 employees. "It was just insanity," Atkinson says, seated behind his desk overlooking the perfectly shorn greens on the edge of the city. "You'd hire a guy and the next day he'd quit, saying he'd found something with better hours. We were all competing for that same elusive person."
This year, he's also turned to a temporary foreign work force, and has begun the process of hiring eight groundskeepers and four kitchen workers, including Pedro Zuñiga. Just three months after the 25-year-old's arrival from Saltillo, Mexico, he sounds as well entrenched as a second-generation member of the country club. "Please don't call me Pedro," he urges politely from behind the counter at the pro shop where he's booking tee times. "I'm Peter." He says he's making five times what he could make at home-enough to send money back to his family with a little left for himself. Maybe one day, he says, he'll be able to put down roots and put his education in business administration to work. "I'm very happy. I want to stay here forever," he says. He fits in like a member of the club, as if he wants to golf here with his son and grandson, as if he's here for the long haul.
Ashil Chandra's mind had churned with those same thoughts as he filled out his application form that morning in late 2006 in a makeshift office in his home city of Suva. He fully expected a cultural adjustment. But he thought that he might come to appreciate a Ukrainian folk dance, maybe even take up a winter sport once he got used to the sight of snow. Still, he figured his comfort zone would be the workplace-a restaurant kitchen, the one constant from Fiji. So, although he was thoroughly humbled as he stood in front of the Canada Customs agent, learning that he'd moved several time zones just to flip omelettes and sling hash, he vowed to make the best of it.
It wasn't until the second week that things took a turn for the worse. Soon, Chandra was being pulled off the grill to clean walls, wash dishes, mop the floors. He was spending as much time on janitorial duties as he was on cooking. The new duties weren't what he believed he'd signed on for. But it was another frustration that eventually led him and a handful of his Fijian co-workers to discuss their situation with a local labour advocate: the growing realization that they were working full-time, going broke, and didn't have a hope of getting Canadian residency after all.
The workers laid out their complaints, spreading a raft of documents across a table. There were photocopies of pay-stub deductions for the fees being charged by the broker; a list of other fees-$10 for an iron, $7 for a shower curtain, $7 for hangers, money for pots and pans, for face cloths, as well as the first month's rent and damage deposit; a letter that advised them the monies were due immediately. "Please place cash in individual envelopes," it said. The payments were to be the first in a series of monthly instalments that would tally up to more than $6,000, which the workers said they only learned of once they had landed in Canada. Reluctantly, they'd signed documents authorizing Smitty's to make deductions on behalf of Foreign Recruitment Specialists in the order of $333 a month. "We complained to the broker," Chandra said. "But they said, 'If you don't want this money taken out of your paycheque, you can take the next plane home.'"
Between the broker fees and sending money home to pay off a loan he'd taken to buy his plane ticket to Canada, Chandra had about $50 left at the end of each week. He had to put off buying a winter coat and boots, and eventually began looking for ways to supplement his income. He shovelled snow, did errands and applied for a part-time position at Tim Hortons, but was turned away because his visa didn't allow him to work at more than one job at a time. An even worse indignity, though, was finding out that he wasn't eligible for permanent residency. "Once you have successfully completed a six-month period of employment, we will start the process to help you become permanent residents to Canada," his employment contract had stated. But when the half-year mark approached, he and the other Fijians discovered that as line cooks, they were ineligible for Alberta's sponsorship program, which allows some categories of low-skilled foreign workers to become nominees for immigration.
For weeks, Chandra and his co-workers fumed. "We couldn't eat, we couldn't sleep," he says. "Every night we were depressed. We'd say, 'What's the use of coming to Canada?'" Kam Kunal, the young man who, less than a year ago, had smiled into the TV cameras and proclaimed he couldn't wait to start his new job, was seeing the Canadian work program in a new light. "There were so many lies," he said. "It was just all bullshit."
The workers weren't the only ones taking complaints to the Alberta Federation of Labour, which has been agitating for greater protection for guest workers. The rapid ramp-up of the program has left the country's most vulnerable labourers as targets for exploitation, say AFL representatives, who cite concerns such as temporary workers' ineligibility for employment insurance. Health care is also an issue-although workers qualify for free medical services, many are shut out of the system by employers who don't bother registering them. And although the program requires that workers be paid the prevailing wage for their job category-the going rate, as opposed to the provincial minimum wage-there are no enforcement measures in place to ensure this happens once workers arrive. "By allowing the temporary foreign worker program to grow exponentially without any of the necessary safeguards, our governments are essentially creating an underclass of workers," says AFL president Gil McGowan, who compares the program to a visa-driven caste system.
Yessy Byl, the AFL's advocate for temporary foreign workers, has been busy taking reports about unscrupulous employers and shady recruiters. Part of her work involves filing complaints to the provincial government about illegal broker fees; another is helping workers find jobs with fair-minded employers. Many new arrivals don't know that although they are admitted to the country to work for a specific employer, they aren't tied to that job if things go off the rails, says Byl, who has helped clients through a range of unfamiliar and intimidating situations, including the unwelcome arrival of a broker at a worker's home at 3 a.m. (Byl called the cops.)
"I've seen many disturbing examples of employers and brokers behaving badly and governments looking the other way," the 50-something lawyer says with a sigh. At 8 p.m., she's just finishing work, and the fax machine in her home office is still whirring-likely a resumé arriving from one of the more than 100 workers she represents. But Byl believes that the complaints that end up on her desk, and those fielded on the government hotline-about 15 each month-represent only a tiny sliver of worker abuse. Guest workers aren't likely to ever complain, she says, for fear they'll be sent back home. Many come from countries run by repressive regimes and are loath to turn to any government for assistance. And still more don't have the language skills to navigate the system to make their complaints known, she adds. "Canada has a well-deserved good reputation around the world. But that reputation will be put at risk if we continue to allow workers...to be treated in these ways," she says. "People come here with incredible hopes and dreams, only to be treated so badly."
Byl complained to the government about the broker fees on behalf of the Fijian chefs. The province cracked down, slapping a cease-and-desist order against Foreign Recruitment Services and its owner, David Lofthaug, because it's illegal, under provincial law, to charge workers recruitment fees. However, the government has since issued FRS a conditional licence, and Lofthaug is now asking the Smitty's chefs to sign new contracts with fees of $5,000, including monthly payments of $353.34 for settlement services. Provincial laws don't prohibit brokers from charging for settlement-related costs, which include everything from ferrying workers from the airport to finding them apartments and advising them on local health services.
For his part, Lofthaug disputes the Fijians' account of the events. He says the workers were made aware of his fees before they came to Canada and insists they knew that Smitty's was a family restaurant before they signed their employment contracts. "I can tell you that the Srokas had their full menu and numerous other promotion materials sent to Fiji so the workers could make an informed decision," Lofthaug says.
Meanwhile, Don Sroka says the company didn't know that the Fijian cooks were ineligible for the province's sponsorship program. "From our perspective, we have done many things for these people. I don't feel that we've done anything but taken the moral high ground here," he says. "At Smitty's, we are really just part of one big family."
Byl is doing her best to stand up for the less fortunate members of the Smitty's family by challenging the legality of the settlement fees, but she says the bigger issue is a moral one: whether we should be bringing people into Canada and setting them up for failure by putting them in jobs in which they can't make a living. An employee earning $11.50 an hour and working a 40-hour week makes less than $2,000 a month before taxes. Take off $500 for rent, another $500 in fees, factor in the cost of groceries, winter clothing and a bus pass, and most workers are left with next to nothing. Employers are using the temporary foreign worker program to secure cheap labour for jobs that Canadians won't take, Byl says. "As long as you find people you can pay $11.50 an hour, why would you pay a living wage to someone else?"
David Green, an economist at the University of British Columbia, states the issue matter-of-factly: "This is politics. It's not business. It's not economics. It's just meddling, messing around with market signals when the market should be sorting itself out." The way he sees it, the program is a quick-fix scheme that subverts a fundamental concept of economics: supply and demand. If the market were doing its job, companies would be forced to pay higher wages to attract workers. The temporary foreign worker program may be helping business, but it's not helping workers who haven't seen real wage increases in 30 years, he says.
Complicating the issue is the fact that many of the jobs that employers can't fill were never meant to be full-time positions, particularly those in the service sector. With extended hours-and, in many cases, 24-hour service-rapidly becoming the norm at grocery stores and fast-food outlets, and Sunday shopping now firmly entrenched in Canada, employers need more staff to work longer shifts. So part-time jobs that were traditionally held by high school and university students began morphing into full-time positions-without a corresponding pay increase.
Still, economists like Andrew Jackson of the Canadian Labour Congress question the accepted wisdom that there is a widespread labour shortage. He says there's no denying the skills shortages in specific sectors and regions, but much of the looming crisis is preventable. Skilled workers are being displaced in Ontario and Quebec in industrial jobs-workers who could be used to fill jobs in other sectors and regions of the country. Addressing shortages through investments in training and support for labour mobility would be better for society and better for the economy, Jackson says.
The Alberta government has promised to provide more safeguards for workers in the coming months. Iris Evans, the provincial minister overseeing the program, says that both the Alberta and federal governments will be making announcements about new worker protections this fall. Still, McMaster University labour studies professor Charlotte Yates says she's stunned that there isn't more discussion about the rapid unfurling of the temporary foreign worker program, because it goes to the heart of more fundamental questions: What kind of Canada do we want? Do we want a country with two classes of citizens?
There was a time when Canadians were proud of their record on immigration. But Yates says our record as a land of opportunity for immigrants hasn't been a reality for decades. "Are we willing as a country to exploit people in ways that we never have before? That's the real question." Worker advocates have been trumpeting the orthodoxy of inclusion: If you're good enough to work here, you're good enough to live here. It's sort of like the family values trotted out by Smitty's-without the conditions and settlement fees.
Meanwhile, Ashil Chandra has joined a new family, a clan much more to his liking. He's found a job at the elegant, five-star Fairmont Hotel at Chateau Lake Louise. Kam Kunal has also left the Smitty's chain to work in one of the Chateau's many kitchens.
If only that Customs officer could see him now. It's just after 3 in the afternoon, and Chandra has finished his shift for the day. From his dorm room, he looks out over the postcard-ready landscape he wakes up to every morning-the emerald-green lake and the Victoria glacier rising above it. In some ways, its stunning natural beauty reminds him of the home he left to grab his piece of Alberta's boom. He says his only worries these days are about his parents in Fiji. FRS, the broker, has been phoning them, asking to collect their son's unpaid fees. Chandra has urged them not to pay the money.
Still, staring out the window, he can't help smiling as he reflects on his good fortune, albeit good fortune delayed. His dreams are finally coming true. "I love it here," he says, his voice burbling with enthusiasm. "They are so very nice to me at Fairmont. I hope some other chefs from Fiji can work here." In Lake Louise, Chandra's already come a long way since he whipped his last box of Smitty's pancake batter. He came to Alberta with the hope of learning about Canadian cuisine, and now a celebrated chef is mentoring him. One day, he'll be learning to cook the finest dishes served in the hotel's Fairview dining room-like the spice crusted venison loin served with creamy Savoy cabbage and crisp potato-apple dumplings in a cranberry and peppercorn sauce.
The temporary foreign worker program has provided him with opportunities he couldn't have hoped for at home, although it didn't always look that way. While it's undoubtedly turned out badly for other guest workers, there are lots of success stories, too. Pedro Zuñiga at the HeatherGlen golf course in Calgary will be returning home to Mexico this winter for a few months, but is looking forward to another year of work in the spring. And a half-dozen employees at Waiward Steel are even happier. The company is sponsoring them in the provincial nominee program that will allow them to become landed immigrants.
One day, Chandra is hoping he'll also become a full-fledged Canadian citizen. If he's allowed to upgrade his visa, he can go to chef school and take courses that, combined with a few more months of work under his belt, would make him eligible for the provincial nominee program, too. And then, if all goes according to plan, it will no longer be just his name at the bottom of the menu. One day, he hopes to open his own restaurant with a sign that reads: "Ashil's Place. Fine dining. Families welcome."
THE BROKER BOOM As the temporary foreign worker program has raced to keep pace with an overheated economy, so has the recruitment industry. New outfits selling opportunity and adventure to workers in far-flung places have been cropping up across the country. In Alberta alone, the number of employment agencies has more than doubled from 120 in 2004 to more than 290.
Agencies make their money scouting workers in places like Sri Lanka, India, China, the Philippines and Mexico. The services they provide on behalf of employers include everything from interviewing new workers and administering skills tests to helping companies navigate the labyrinth of provincial and federal employment and immigration laws for bringing in workers.
Often, recruitment fees are charged to employers. However,
it's not uncommon for recruiters to download fees directly to guest workers-a practice that's become a hot-button issue in Alberta. Under the province's Fair Trading Act, it's illegal for headhunting agencies to charge workers for recruiting them to Canada. However, employment brokers are allowed to charge settlement fees for services such as helping new arrivals find apartments, figuring out bus routes and obtaining health insurance cards.
Firms like Calgary-based JIR Solutions, which recruits workers from Eastern Europe and the United Kingdom, believe it's unethical for guest workers to have to pay for the privilege of bailing out Canadian companies in their time of need. But JIR president Eric Rudy says it's getting hard to compete with recruiters who tell companies they won't have to bear the financial burden of bringing in foreign workers. "It's the Wild West out there," says Rudy.
A growing number of employers, including Jim Kanerva of Waiward Steel, are also wary of recruiters who gouge guest workers. In the past, Kanerva says, companies like his rarely received cold calls. "Now I hear it all the time. They tell me, 'You don't have to pay anything. It's all on the employee's back.' "As Canadians, we like to project ourselves as high and mighty. But...right now, it's a really ethically challenged marketplace."