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Migrant workers must take care when selecting Canadian job recruiters | Immigration Matters

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Since 2007, the number of employment agencies in Alberta has more than tripled — rising, too, are probes into their practices — with service Alberta weighing revamping rules to crack down on dodgy operators.

The Filipina migrant worker arrived in Calgary, Canada in July 2009 ready for work as a live-in nanny.

Recruited from France, where she’d spent the previous six years, the live in caregiver had everything she needed in hand: a work permit, experience in the field, and a promise of a job in this city.

But despite the $5,800 she paid to an employment agency in Calgary, the 51-year-old landed to learn there was no position waiting for her.

With little choice, she forged ahead, calling the agency regularly for any update. She says she was treated rudely. After months of waiting, no job came her way.

A year later, the woman says she has not received a refund, and it is only by her own efforts she secured work in Calgary taking care of three children.

“They don’t care about me,” the woman, who asked not to be identified, says of the employment agency. “They took my money with nothing.”

The woman is far from alone. In the past four years, Service Alberta has launched hundreds of investigations into employment agencies that recruit temporary foreign workers — with more than one-third of those complaints proving valid.

So worrying is this trend that Service Alberta is in the midst of a legislative review as it considers revamping regulations to better crack down on dodgy employment agencies.

Contemplated changes include: requiring a security bond from recruiters, changing the definition of employment agency, forbidding or regulating “settlement” fees, and prohibiting misrepresentation and threatening behaviour.

But despite the increasing number of investigations, formal enforcement action, in the form of director’s orders or regulatory charges, is only taken in a small number of cases involving employment agencies.

That has led some to question if the province is going after problem agencies with enough vigour, and whether the law gives officials enough teeth to conduct full-blown investigations into the conduct of troublesome recruiters that target foreigners.

Another provincial government department is also taking a hard look at the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which lies under the auspices of the federal government. Round table discussions throughout Alberta this fall will lead to recommendations to Ottawa.

Recently, provincial Employment and Immigration Minister Thomas Lukaszuk suggested the temporary part of the program was no longer working for Alberta, and the labour of such workers is needed more permanently.

It’s illegal in Alberta under the Fair Trading Act for recruiters to charge job seekers money to find them work. But observers note some are apparently ignoring the regulations or trying to slide by with fees for services they simply call by a different name.

All this has officials concerned, especially as Alberta emerges from recession and the call for labour that prompted the rush of temporary foreign workers to this province may soon resume.

“The concern for me is in the future when more workers are required,” Service Alberta Minister Heather Klimchuk said in a recent interview. “I want to be ready to make sure that there’s protection in place for individuals when they come to Alberta. It’s about being treated with fairness and respect.”

Since 2007, the number of job recruiters in Alberta has more than tripled, with 570 now licensed in the province.

As the number of employment agencies has risen, so too has the number of investigations by Service Alberta into their practices. Major complaints include prohibited fees, misrepresentation and overcharging for services, and unlicensed agencies.

  • In 2007, for example, the province initiated just 19 investigations. Eight of those were “validated.”
  • During the first half of 2010, the province launched 145 investigations. Already, 28 of those have been validated.
  • In all, there have been 375 investigations since 2000, with almost all coming in the last two and half years. More than a third were valid. Almost every one of these valid investigations dealt with temporary foreign workers.

But despite the increase in the number of valid investigations, enforcement action has only been taken in 18 cases — a mixture of charges that ended up in court, director’s orders and undertakings.

Klimchuk says in many cases where there is no formal action, authorities are successful at retrieving most, if not all, of a worker’s money from the employment agency.

“The ones that end up going to undertaking or going to the court system, those are exceedingly complex and perhaps the players may not want to settle and they want to take it to the court system,” she says.

Prohibited fees range from a few hundred dollars up to $30,000. Most cases deal with fees below $5,000. As a result of its investigations, Service Alberta has recovered $291,201.25 for workers.

Retrieving those prohibited fees is a good thing, according to Yessy Byl, a lawyer associated with the Alberta Federation of Labour who helps temporary foreign workers. Often those workers need that money back.

The problem, she says, is there is not enough power for investigators to really go through the books of an employment agency and find out what other workers might be the victims of outlawed practices.

When a complaint is lodged by a shafted worker, some of these firms view handing back money as simply the cost of doing business, Byl says.

“It’s a Band-Aid for one person, but what about the other 50 that paid the same fee who are afraid to complain,” she says.

Some agencies, rather than charging employment fees, hide behind terms like “immigration” and “settlement” fees to extract large amounts of money from foreign workers looking for a job, Byl says.

She says thousands are sometimes charged simply to pick a person up from the airport, take them to their apartment, and perhaps help them open a bank account.

“The problem is that recruiters have been operating with impunity,” she says.

During the past three or four years, there’s been an explosion in the number of employment agencies licensed in Alberta.

Many of those coincided with the white-hot economy and popped up, often out of people’s homes and basements, with the sole purpose of bringing foreign workers to Alberta.

This is according to Randy Upright, vice-president of the Association of Canadian Search, Employment and Staffing Services, a national group that advocates for the industry and promotes high standards.

As an association, they are in full support of regulations forbidding an employment agency from directly or indirectly demanding or charging a fee to a person seeking work.

Upright says his association wants licensing standards in Alberta broadened to include firms that act in some ways like employment agencies, but don’t currently fall under the legislation.

“We would like to see greater enforcement of the regulations,” he says.

Part of the problem is conflicting expectations. Temporary foreign workers are supposed to arrive in Canada, work for a couple of years, and then head back home.

But many foreign workers see the program as a hopeful gateway to permanent residency in this country, according to Fariborz Birjandian, executive director of the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society.

“The fundamental problem is that we are planning and wishing for something which is quite different from how people outside the country look at this initiative, look at this opportunity,” he says.

That has created a market, he says, and the whole idea of the temporary foreign worker has been turned into a lucrative business. Crooked recruiters charge a price and many are apparently willing to pay.

According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, last December there were nearly 66,000 foreign workers in Alberta, and roughly 283,000 in the country as a whole.

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program deals with different levels of government. Service Canada issues Labour Market Opinions in response to employers who want to hire foreign workers. Citizenship and Immigration Canada is the body that decides if the work permit is issued.

Last fall, federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney proposed a series of regulatory amendments to the program.

Those changes have not yet been adopted, but they include: better assessing the genuineness of a job offer, in part by judging the employer on their past compliance with labour laws; and a two-year prohibition from hiring foreign workers if the employer has broken promises dealing with wages and work conditions in a significant way.

Employment and labour concerns are the purview of the province. Service Alberta is in charge of the Fair Trading Act and the department recently circulated a discussion paper and questionnaire dealing with employment agencies in Alberta.

“With the increase in the number of foreign workers coming into the province, Service Alberta began to receive more inquiries about unfair agency practices, resulting in more investigations into terms and conditions, exorbitant fees, misrepresentations and other violations of the Fair Trading Act,” the document says.

Contemplated changes to the legislation include:

  • revising the definition of an employment agency;
  • requiring all employment agencies to enter a written agreement with a job seeker and the employer looking for a worker;
  • prohibiting certain practices such as false advertising, threats of deportation, harassing family members, and misrepresenting wages, position and the rights of the individual;
  • requiring agencies to put up a security bond; and
  • regulating, and possibly prohibiting, fees charged for settlement services.

No decision has yet been made on what changes might be in order.

Source: Richard Cuthbertson, Calgary Herald.

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