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Damning Docs: Alberta Labor Leaders Find New Proof of Gov’t Role in Wage Suppression

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Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) President Gil McGowan claims documents unearthed by an Access to Information request show the Canadian government colluded with businesses to use the temporary foreign worker (TFW) program to repress wages in certain industries.

The program, which has made some changes after coming under fire in the past year, was described by McGowan as a “train wreck” that was being used to keep wages low.  

“Behind closed doors, they knew the rules were being bent and broken, and they knew thousands of temporary foreign workers were being underpaid,” he said.

The unearthed documents provide a “snapshot” of how far-reaching the program is and how it specifically affects Alberta:

According to the documents, 3,700 foreign workers were paid less than what a Canadian would earn, with more than 2,100 positions in Alberta alone. According to the documents, temporary foreign workers were brought in to fill positions in at least a dozen different sectors, including trucking, health care, and automotive mechanics.

”It’s pretty clear that the problems in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program extend far beyond the food services industry,” McGowan told the CBC. “Canadians should be appalled by the picture that’s painted by these documents.”

Unions and workers groups sounded the alarm on the issue of TFW abuse, and increased media coverage brought about change last year.  Prior to the changes it was legal to pay temporary foreign workers 5 to 15 percent less than the prevailing wage in a given sector.  This thoroughly depressed wages in many industries as the government was compliant in fast-tracking visa requests.  McGowan describes the government’s role in this scheme:

“What’s even more shocking is the government actually facilitated this process by approving applications from employers who admitted right up front that they intended to pay their workers less than the prevailing wage. In other words, the government ignored it’s own rules.”

He notes that since 2006 the average wage for a worker in Alberta increased by 31 percent.  In the fast food sector, however, which has relied heavily on temporary foreign workers, average wages rose only 8 percent.  

Positive steps, such as a proposed cap on TFW visas by 2016 and the elimination of TFW visas in areas with high unemployment, are being taken, but the AFL seeks the total elimination of the program and fears the Harper government will reverse the gains made when the issue is no longer in the spotlight.  

“We are afraid the government, which is after all a business-friendly government, is going to cave in to business pressure,” he said. “These documents are a red flag.”


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