Finding common ground with temporary foreign workers

Union seeks to connect and find ways to support
health care worker holding hands with senior

From the Summer 2023 HEU Guardian

“We need foreign workers. And we need them to be protected,” says an HEU local chair at a for-profit long-term care home on Vancouver Island. 

She is concerned about the vulnerability of temporary foreign workers at her site.

“They are being told to stay away from the union,” she says. “They’re scared to come to a local meeting, and they’re told to not even talk to me at work.”

A growing number of seniors’ care facilities in B.C. are taking advantage of the federal government’s Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program.

TFWs hired in HEU work sites are covered by the union’s collective agreement. But their status can make them reluctant to connect with their local, even if their workplace rights are violated. 

Employer-specific work permits make it challenging for TFWs to change employers. This, paired with their temporary immigration status, creates unique vulnerabilities and increases the risk of work exploitation and abuse.

Being fired during the work permit period is a legitimate fear, says Chris Sorio of Migrante BC, an organization that advocates for migrant workers. 

“They would have no income. They might not be eligible for EI. They might be supporting family in their country of origin. Even if they were able to grieve a firing through their union, they could be deported before it’s dealt with,” he says.

As well, in countries like the Philippines, being a union member is seen as dangerous. “To be a trade union member is to be treated like a criminal,” Sorio says. 

And in regions with housing shortages, some workers depend on their employer not just for their job but for the roof over their head. 

HEU knows of more than one employer who provides rooms for TFWs within the facility where they work, while some supply rental accommodation offsite. But the employer is not obligated to provide housing, so these arrangements can be ended at any time.

This adds another point of vulnerability. “If the employer kicks them out, they have nowhere to go. I know one worker who slept in his car,”  the Vancouver Island member says.

Many workers apply for the program as a step toward permanent residency, and to upgrade qualifications. The permit period is typically two to three years.

Health care employers must apply for a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) before hiring a TFW. This assessment confirms no Canadians or permanent residents are available to do the job.

The number of TFWs and international students working in health care in B.C. isn’t known. But in 2022 there were 119 LMIAs approved for care aide-type occupations, more than double the number in 2021, and up from only 37 in 2019. 

This increase can be attributed to Canada prioritizing immigration of essential workers during the pandemic, as well as expansion and streamlining of the TFW program.

The labour shortage in health care is severe, and TFWs are filling essential positions that would otherwise be vacant. 

But Sorio worries that the program creates “two sets of workers, one who has rights and privileges as Canadians, and another group who are afraid to even complain, or exercise their rights.”

Sorio urges unions to offer support to migrant workers in practical ways, and to learn more about where they come from and why they’re here.

“Unless we remove the climate of fear, we will never be able to reach out,” he says.

By Elaine Littmann