In the News: Even High-Wage Temporary Foreign Workers are at Risk of Exploitation

June 2, 2023 | Hamilton, ON
Contributed by Catherine Connelly, Canada Research Chair and Professor of Organizational Behaviour DeGroote School of Business

As Canadian firms address ongoing staffing challenges, more high-wage temporary foreign workers are likely to be hired. They are an important part of our workforce, and they need the same protections as Canadians.

When we think of temporary foreign workers, we usually think of agricultural workers and nannies: vulnerable workers at risk of exploitation. But not every temporary foreign worker does this kind of work. What about software engineers, accountants, and technicians? Unfortunately, they are also at risk.

Many Canadians assume that high-wage temporary foreign workers are less vulnerable because they have more resources at their disposal. But their high incomes and education levels are not enough to protect them.

Temporary foreign workers in the high-wage stream are vulnerable to exploitation because they have closed work permits. With only a few exceptions, they are only allowed to work for the company that hired them. Even when they are aware of their employment rights, they are often reluctant to do anything that they believe could jeopardize their employment, such as complaining to their boss, their HR department, or the government. Most high-wage temporary foreign workers are hoping to apply for permanent residency through a provincial nominee program, and they are concerned that any complaints will be held against them. And even though many high-wage temporary foreign workers eventually become permanent residents, they still have closed work permits while they navigate this process. And in the meantime, they may endure a lot.

High-wage temporary foreign workers are lucrative targets. Because their wages are relatively high, unscrupulous companies have a financial incentive to pay them less than their contracted wage.
For example, instead of paying them the agreed-upon $30 per hour, a company may decide to only pay them $27 per hour: a 10 per cent discrepancy. This pay cut of course violates the temporary foreign worker guidelines, which stipulate that all temporary foreign workers must be paid the agreed-upon wage for the duration of their contracts. They also must be paid at least the local median wage for their occupation.

Three dollars in wage theft may not sound like much, but it adds up. If that employee works 40 hours per week, this represents a savings to the employer of about $6,240 per year, per employee.

Because high-wage workers are so qualified, they are frequently asked to perform extra tasks that are not in their contracts. For example, they may be asked to manage a team or take on more important or complicated responsibilities with less supervision.

Many temporary foreign workers are overqualified for their positions, so some companies use this as an opportunity to require them to do extra work without compensation, even though this violates the rules of the temporary foreign worker program.

Companies that have difficulty retaining Canadians because of poor management skills may turn to temporary foreign workers specifically to lower rates of staff turnover. While Canadians and foreign workers recruited through the International Mobility Program (e.g., from a country that has a free trade agreement with Canada) can quit, high-wage temporary foreign workers, who might be doing the exact same job, do not have the same options. In addition to wage theft and unrealistic performance expectations, high-wage temporary foreign workers frequently have to deal with abusive supervisors.

The solution is to harmonize the high-wage temporary foreign worker program with the International Mobility Program to ensure that these workers all have the same rights. That is, high-wage temporary foreign workers would receive open work permits that would enable them to change employers more easily. A further advantage of open permits is that companies could then promote high-wage temporary foreign workers, or move them to where they are needed.

One could argue that open permits would be inconvenient for employers, because mistreated high-wage temporary foreign workers may quit if their work permits do not force them to stay with their employer. However, employers could adopt the same management strategies that they use to prevent their Canadian or International Mobility Program employees from quitting: careful recruitment, fair treatment, and reasonable wages.

In discussions about temporary foreign workers, those in the high-wage stream are often overlooked.
There are not so many of them: only 45,867 were approved to come to Canada in 2022. But as Canadian companies address ongoing labour market challenges, more are likely to be hired. High-wage temporary foreign workers are an important part of the Canadian workforce, and they need the same protections as Canadians.

Catherine Connelly is a Canada Research Chair in organizational behaviour at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University, and the author of Enduring Work: Experiences with Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Read the article in The Hill Times.

Catherine Connelly

Catherine Connelly

Professor, Human Resources & Management, and Research Chair of Organizational Behavior

Dr. Catherine Connelly holds a Canada Research Chair (Tier 2) in Organizational Behaviour, and is a Member Emeritus of the College of New Scholars of the Royal Society of Canada (RSC). She is a former associate editor for Human Relations and currently serves on several editorial boards including the Journal of Organizational Behavior, Human Resource Management Review, the Academy of Management Discoveries journal, and Human Resource Management.

Her research focuses on the attitudes, behaviours, and experiences of non-standard workers (e.g., temporary agency workers, contractors, temporary foreign workers), the effects of leadership styles on leader well-being, and knowledge hiding in organizations. Catherine also conducts applied research with several Canadian organizations in both the private and non-profit sector.

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