Canada’s Trudeau and Deportation of Filipino Workers

November 19, 2015 Our Blog

Since 2002, thousands of Filipinos have been hired in low-wage jobs in hotels and restaurants in Canada under its Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program. Their objective was to provide a better life for themselves and their families and eventually become “new Canadians.”

The program became a political hot potato when media reports suggested that employers were using foreign workers to take jobs away from Canadians. While these reports may have been exaggerated, the government responded by introducing sweeping changes to the program in 2013. Key changes included a limit (“cap”) on the number of foreign workers that individual companies could employ, and a ban on hiring foreign workers in areas of high unemployment (i.e., where the unemployment rate was 6 percent or more).

With an election in sight, the changes to the program were rushed through and were applied retroactively (i.e., without providing protection for those already working under the TFW program). As a result, employers who had legally hired TFWs found they now had more foreign workers on their payrolls than they were allowed under the new regulations. This meant that they had no option but to terminate the employment of many Filipinos whose work permits were expiring, and send them back to the Philippines against their will.

This means that many Filipinos who have been working for several years in backbreaking jobs in the coldest parts of Canada are suddenly faced with a heartbreaking situation where their dreams of a better life are being shattered. Through no fault of their own, their applications to renew their work permits are being denied, forcing them to leave Canada within 90 days. Their hopes for providing a better life for their families and their dreams of becoming “new Canadians” are evaporating. What is, in effect, the deportation of a significant number of Filipinos is now taking place.

By a cruel twist of fate, the affected workers have become victims of their own success.

By dint of their hard work, towns such as Fort McMurray, at the center of Canada’s oil industry, have thrived. And because they have been such exemplary employees, they have been hired in increasing numbers by hotels and restaurants in remote areas. The increase in the number of Filipinos in the highly visible restaurant industry may have added to the perception that hard-working Filipinos were “taking jobs away from Canadians.”

A complicating factor in all of this has been the plunge in oil prices, which has seriously damaged Canada’s oil economy. The province of Alberta, where the oil industry in Canada is centered, is now in the throes of an economic recession, causing workers in the oil industry and in related service industries (such as hotels and restaurants) to be laid off. As a result, the unemployment rate has risen to levels exceeding the 6-percent threshold specified in the change to the TFW program.

Perversely, the plunge in the oil industry and the attendant rise in employment were not on the radar when the government made changes to the TFW program. And this situation is not something for which Filipino workers should either be blamed or victimized.

After all, it was certainly not the wish or the intention of Filipino workers to take jobs away from Canadians.

The retroactive changes to Canada’s TFW program and the crisis in the oil industry are having brutal impacts on the lives of temporary foreign workers. It needs to be asked if this outcome was the intent of Canada’s policy toward foreign workers—including the thousands of Filipinos who left their families and have started to build a new life in Canada.

The one silver lining is the recent election of a fresh, attractive prime minister in Canada. Justin Trudeau, 43, the son of a former Canadian prime minister, campaigned, among other things, to restore Canada’s position in world affairs, accommodate thousands of Syrian refugees, and strengthen family reunification programs for “new Canadians.”

During the election campaign, Trudeau appealed “to the better angels” of Canadians’ nature. On election night, he declared, “I want to say this to this country’s friends around the world: Many of you have worried that Canada has lost its compassionate and constructive voice in the world over the past 10 years. Well, I have a simple message for you on behalf of 35 million Canadians. We’re back.”

Canadians pride themselves in being associated in the international arena with values of justice, humanity and fair play. Will Prime Minister Trudeau’s election allow these values to be applied to the thousands of Filipino workers already in Canada, but not facing forcible deportation? Will their hard work, over a number of years, earn them the right to stay in Canada long enough to realize their dreams of becoming “new Canadians”?


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