Troubled TFW program marked by stories of coercion, death threats and bad data

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
The federal government imposed a moratorium on the use of temporary foreign workers in the fast-food industry.

The news for Ottawa's embattled Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFW) just seems to keep getting worse.

More stories about employers abusing the program and their migrant labourers keep surfacing. And we're also learning that the skilled labour shortages, the rationale underpinning the whole program, appear to be a myth.

Investigative reporting by CBC News has turned up stories of intimidation, coercion, even death threats involving temporary foreign workers.

According to CBC News, an Israeli man brought by a B.C. company that operates shopping mall kiosks said he and his colleagues worked for no pay under constant threat of deportation and his manager made death threats against him.

Anton Soloviov, 25, worked for a numbered company operated by Dor Mordechai and his wife, Anna Lepski, selling massage devices at a mall in Nanaimo, B.C..

“They import you as a worker," he told CBC News. "Then they put you to 12-hours-a-day work ... and they don’t pay you. So basically, that’s human trafficking."

Immigration officials have indeed categorized Soloviov's situation as "human trafficking in persons," while the RCMP is investigating a former manager for uttering threats, CBC News said.

Problems with the company's operations apparently go back to 2011, when Canada Border Services raided its Israeli-staffed kiosks in Ottawa and Halifax. But the company's permission to bring in temporary foreign workers was not revoked.

Soloviov apparently came to Canada last September, hired by an Israeli recruitment agency.

“I wanted to become a citizen … not just a temporary foreign worker,” said Soloviov, apparently unaware that the TFW program is not normally a path to citizenship.

“The sales pitch was originally, ‘Come here, make $5,000 each month ... even if you are not a good salesman, Canadians are really easy people to sell to.'”

He had to pay his own air fare (the TFW program requires employers to cover that) and apparently was told to lie to border agents when he arrived and say he was a tourist, CBC News said.

Once he got here, he was told he could work illegally or pay the employer $500 to get him a work visa. Instead of receiving the hourly wage required by the TFW program's Labour Market Opinion, Soloviov and his colleagues were told they would be working on commission and if they didn't like it, they would be deported, he told CBC News.

The pay was meagre after the employer deducted rent for the sparsely-furnished house he shared with other workers, plus "fines," for things like talking to other employees while on the job.

“I got paid 50 bucks or 100 bucks in the three months I worked and that’s bad exploitation," he said. "But some people were actually slaves and ended up owing him money.”

When Soloviov told his manager that he planned to complain to B.C. labour officials, the manager flew into a rage and threatened him with death, he told CBC News. He went to the police about that, he said, and then received another death threat by telephone.

[ Related: Fast-food industry’s use of temporary workers suspended ]

A lawyer for the kiosk outfit's owners told CBC News they would not comment.

CBC News also reported on another apparent attempt to cow foreign workers.

A Saskatoon recruiting firm apparently sent an email to the management of a pizza place in Estevan, Sask., explaining some foreign workers over time "become 'Canadianized' and increase their demands on the employers."

"We believe a simple reminder to the workers will reverse the effects of the Canadian influence," the 2011 email said, suggesting "Canadianized" workers could be told they'd be sent home if things didn't work out, CBC News reported.

The email noted the restaurant was supporting the bid of some of its Filipino workers to become permanent residents of Canada, suggesting it could let them know that support could disappear.

"An employer choosing to withdraw their support is not punishing their workers, rather, showing them they [the employers] has the right to support them or not," the email said, according to CBC News.

The recruiting firm declined to discuss the email, telling CBC News its role is to advise its clients of the rules.

"We encourage our clients to remind the temporary foreign workers that Canadians and permanent residents always get the first opportunity for all jobs in Canada and the temporary foreign worker is in Canada to support the employer where the Canadian citizens/permanent residents cannot," the company said in an email.

Restaurant co-owner Robin Garchinski said the email, which may have been attached to a worker's pay stub, was not objectionable.

"What I read there, it was really no threat," he told CBC News, adding it was simply a reminder of the terms under which the temporary workers were hired.

"They signed that contract before they even come here that they have their job specific [to] this location only and I don't have to sign their permanent residence to keep their paperwork going," Garchinski said.

"At the end of their term they can go home. That's pretty known stuff."

Osgoode Hall law professor Fay Faraday, who's written a book on the exploitation of migrant workers, said she was not surprised by this case.

"We've heard about these kind of practices for years," Faraday told CBC News. "I'm surprised that someone has actually written it down."

[ Related: How Canada became addicted to temporary foreign workers ]

The TFW program has been under fire for more than a year but things really blew up in recent weeks with disclosures that Canadian workers' hours at some fast food outlets were being cut in favour of temporary foreign workers.

Employment Minister Jason Kenney suspended the food-services sector's access to the program while officials investigated.

The industry has bridled at the moratorium, warning some restaurants may be forced to shut down if its existing foreign staff's permits are not renewed.

The mayor of Red Lake, Ont., told CBC News the program is vital to his community, saying may businesses in the resource town need foreign workers to stay open.

"Chase down the rogue employers," Phil Vinet said. "This isn't rocket science."

Given the high-paying resource sector attracts most local workers, "what is left over is very limited labour left for the service industry," he said.

"If there is any suggestion that the doors may shutter or even reduce hours and lessen the service for Red Lakers, that just flies in the face of what the program was intended for."

The program, which has been around in one form or another for years, was originally designed to alleviate localized shortages of skilled labour. But it expanded in recent years to include unskilled service-industry jobs, triggering a surge in the number of temporary foreign workers, especially in Western Canada.

Now, however, the Globe and Mail reports one of the factors that's influenced expansion of the TFW program has been invalidated.

The Globe said Monday the federal government has quietly adjusted its labour-market data to disregard online job postings from Kijiji and similar sites that had helped drive warnings of labour shortages.

The latest labour-market report found a job vacancy rate of 1.5 per cent, far less than the four per cent rate Finance Canada warned of in its budget documents, the Globe said.

The Parliamentary Budget Office had previously pointed to problems with software used to pull data from online job boards, noting the growth in postings was due entirely to increased postings on Kijiji. The site allows the same job to be posted in different sections, inflating the numbers, the Globe said.

Assistant parliamentary budget officer Mostafa Askari told the Globe the changes to the most recent labour-market report underscore the fact Canada does not have reliable job data, which makes it hard to justify policy measures such as expanding the TFW program.

Still, the TFW program has its staunch defenders.

Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business wrote in the Financial Post last weekend it's a constant struggle for employers to find people to fill lesser-skilled positions.

"In rural and remote communities – particularly those with a strong resource base – the problem is particularly acute," he wrote.

Kelly caused a stink when in an interview he backed the view that some Canadian workers don't have the same work ethic as temporary foreign workers.

"But the truth is I’m hearing from small business owners that they need more people who will show up, on time, work a full week without disappearing and give their customers a basic level of courtesy," he said in the Post.

Small business owners embrace these new workers, said Kelly, "and far from abusing them, help them in a variety of ways."

I guess he hasn't spoken to Mr. Soloviov or those Filipinos working at the Estevan pizzaria.