Foreign workers in Canada fear backlash, loss of dreams

Thu May 1, 2014 3:19pm EDT
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By Andrea Hopkins

TORONTO (Reuters) - Bugan Wigan could handle the hard work packing fruit and cleaning hotel rooms, and the crushing debt she owed recruiters who found her jobs. But a backlash against the foreign worker program that brought her to Canada means the clock is ticking on her ability to support her family in the Philippines.

"I'm here six years, away from my family. I was hoping I could bring them here. But now, we are just counting our days," said Wigan, 40, who currently works at McDonald's in Vancouver.

She is one of about 400,000 people who came to Canada under the government's temporary foreign worker program, which is designed to fill jobs for which there are no qualified Canadian candidates. The program has been hugely popular with employers, ballooning from 100,000 workers in 2002.

But the backlash against it has also grown as the program, initially designed to help the booming resource industry, has expanded to lower-skilled jobs, especially at restaurant chains such as McDonald's Corp and Tim Hortons Inc

Last week, the Conservative government slapped a moratorium on the food service industry hiring temporary foreign workers after media reports said that some restaurants had turned away qualified Canadians in favor of using foreigners to fill job openings.

Employment Minister Jason Kenney has acknowledged some abuses of the system and last year began tightening up the rules for employers to participate in the program. He has promised more changes.

Caught in the middle are workers like Wigan, who harbored dreams of using the program as a springboard to permanent residency. While the program is explicitly designed to be temporary, some workers have been able to use provisions that allow for longer stays. Those loopholes appear to be closing as the government moves to contain the backlash against the hiring of temporary foreign workers.


A Canadian flag waves beside McDonalds fast food restaurant in Toronto, May 1, 2014. REUTERS/Mark Blinch