TORN APART – Temporary foreign workers in St. Albert are afraid that program changes will cost them the chance to live permanently in Canada.
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION/St. Albert Gazette
SACRIFICE FOR FAMILY – Many temporary foreign workers take on menial jobs in Canada despite having professional credentials in their home countries.
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY CANDACE ELLIOTT/St. Albert Gazette
The mid-July evening was rainy but that did not deter the Filipino men and women from having a picnic under the shelter at the local park.
Wrapped in sweaters and huddled around wooden tables, they were a small group of young professionals, most in their late 20s and early 30s, with titles and degrees in electrical and mechanical engineering, accounting, psychology and business management.
This was not a roundtable discussion nor a young professionals' meet-up. The picnic was a welcome break from serving fries, scrubbing floors and stacking shelves as temporary foreign workers.
“I used to work in Taiwan. But there was an opportunity here to help my family.” says one woman. “So I decided to come here. It was a dream come true, I mean, it's Canada.”
“Canada, it's a free country,” says another, then laughs. “It's the land of milk and honey.”
Alberta has the highest per-capita use of temporary foreign workers. Almost 45,000 people from foreign countries call this province their second home, based on preliminary December 2013 statistics on the government's immigration website.
Statistics Canada reports that the Philippines, followed by the United States and the United Kingdom, are the most common countries of origin for non-permanent residents in Canada, followed by China, India, Mexico and France.
Many of them may soon have to pack their bags, sell their belongings, and move back home, as changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program call for a phasing out of the program over the next three years.
Fearful of losing their jobs or running into trouble with immigration, they only reluctantly speak with the media.
“We are worried but we are still hoping. We still believe and hope that the Canadian government will help us,” says one woman.
“We have done the work here for years and we have given our life to working here. I think they will give us another chance.”
Sacrifice: It's the one word they all have in common. They are sacrificing education, home and family, all for the chance to build a better life abroad for their children, siblings and parents.
It leaves little room for them to think of themselves.
“Way back in the Philippines, I managed my staff because I am a manager,” says one man. “And here I am part of the crew and someone is managing me. You have to adapt, you take two steps back.”
“But it's OK, it's part of the sacrifice we are taking.”
One woman says she came here to help her sister pay for university. Another says she's supporting her parents back home.
Her father was injured and can't work anymore, she says. Now her parents lack a stable income and there's no pension provided by the Filipino government.
If you're older than 35, it's difficult to find a new job, adds another. That is, unless you have money and status. Even a university degree won't get you far.
“But if you work hard (in Canada) you get an opportunity to get education, to acquire a car, to be able to build yourself a roof, get a house,” she says. “Not many people are able to do that in the Philippines.”
Better than home
They are all working toward getting their permanent residency. Then, perhaps, they can bring their children, siblings or parents to Canada, or go back to school to upgrade their degree to Canadian standards.
For now, they're often overqualified in their jobs, working behind fast-food counters or stacking the shelves at hardware stores. But it's worth it, they say – because the pay is good and their employers are friendly.
Back home, they earned about $300 per month in their chosen professions, they say. Here, they make $1,800 to $2,000 per month.
Half of that money, if not more, they send back home, leaving only a few hundred dollars for groceries.
“And of course your family is expecting that you're making lots of money even though you are cleaning the toilets, scrubbing the floor. They don't know our sacrifice,” one woman says.
“In Facebook, they see us happy but behind that we are crying inside. Because we miss them.”
Asked about their employers, they say they are well looked after. Yes, there are cases in the country in which workers have been abused. But in St. Albert they're treated like family, they say.
Fear of what's next
The people in this group have been in Canada anywhere from one to five years.
Only two were able to apply for permanent residency before the program changes were announced. One received it this year.
The others hope that the government will still accommodate their requests for renewed work permits and permanent residence, rather than sending them home.
“I think they are only looking at the negative side. We are not doing any harm in this country. This is our second country,” said one.
“We just work. We are also taxpayers. We are abiding by the rules, just like any other resident.”