Temporary foreign workers fuel Canadian oil town's service sector

by @audromatic3000 June 29, 2015 5:00AM ET

The country is clamping down on a visa program that has helped transform 'Fort McMoney' into a melting pot

The Syncrude facility north of Fort McMurray, Alberta.
Brian Harder for Al Jazeera America
Ann Klein Caisido, left, with Alesha Grant and her two daughters, Anna, 4 and Olivia, 8 months.
Brian Harder for Al Jazeera America

Editor's note: This is the first in a four-part series on Canada's oil boom. 

FORT MCMURRAY, Alberta — Alesha Grant hired Ann Klein Caisido almost immediately, though they had only met once via Skype. It is easy to see why. Caisido is the live-in nanny to Grant’s two daughters, 4-year-old Anna and 8-month-old Olivia. She is calm and easygoing, willing to crawl with the girls into the tent at the center of the living room, which is brimming with toys.

Caisido’s warm, reliable demeanor was reassuring, given that both Grant and her husband work long hours and sometimes unpredictable schedules. Grant is a full-time nurse in Fort McMurray, the rapidly expanding northern Alberta boomtown at the heart of the oil sands, the tarry, semi-solid form of crude found in this part of Canada. Her husband is a power engineer at the Suncor site, one of two major oil-sands developments within commuting distance of the town. Normally, he works six days on, followed by six days off. But Caisido’s personality was not her only attractive trait. A native of the Philippines who lived in Hong Kong until the end of March, she is an immigrant worker on a Canadian live-in-caregiver visa. That status ties her to the Grants. For the next two years, she cannot leave the nanny job if she wants to stay in Canada, unless she has another work sponsor and permit lined up.

Caisido is one of about 500 nannies who immigrated to Canada as live-in caregivers and are looking after the children of Fort McMurray. In this town of strip malls and new cookie-cutter suburban developments, the oil sands are by far the main source of employment. They have made its residents the most affluent of any Canadian city, with an average household income of $191,507 Canadian ($152,885 U.S.). This is why the town is nicknamed “Fort McMoney.” However, the town’s residents also work the longest hours in the country, with schedules in the oil patch that often consist of 12-hour shifts for days at a time. This places enormous pressure on families and has created a demand for people like Caisido who are willing to move halfway across the world to work in Fort McMurray’s service industry for a fraction of the wages paid to oil-industry workers. (Caisido earns close to the provincial minimum wage of $10.20 an hour, whereas salaries for oil-patch workers begin in the high five figures). And it is not just the nannies: A walk through the local Subway, Wal-Mart and the fast-food joint Sobey’s reveals a floor staff constituted primarily of immigrants.

A mansion goes up in Fort McMurray.
Brian Harder for Al Jazeera America
Row houses in a recently developed subdivision of Fort McMurray.
Brian Harder for Al Jazeera America

Since 2006, when the decades-old Temporary Foreign Worker Program was expanded amid Canada's oil boom to include low-skilled workers, the number of immigrant workers has surged. In Alberta, there were 40,471 temporary foreign workers in 2013, compared with 9,703 in 2006. But the influx of foreign workers has fueled a backlash from conservatives and labor groups, which argue that immigrant guest workers are stealing Canadian jobs. In response, the government took steps last year to restrict the caregiver program, capping the number of people who can apply for permanent residency each year and making it much more difficult for temporary foreign workers in service jobs to achieve permanent residency. The tens of thousands of layoffs that have occurred in Alberta’s energy sector since last fall, a result of plummeting oil prices, have only strengthened the arguments that the province should not bring in foreign workers when so many Canadians are unemployed.

Caisido was admitted on a caregiver visa just before the change in rules. In 2017, she will be eligible for residency and will be able to bring her son, who is now 10, to join her. A decade ago, as a 21-year-old single mother, Caisido left the boy in the care of her brother in the Philippines. “I’m used to it already, being far from my family,” she said. “I bear the consequences of that.”

Marco Luciano, a spokesman for the immigrant-rights organization Migrante Alberta, says he is worried that other workers affected by the rules change will stay on after their work permits expire, taking their chances without access to health care or other services. “The [government] should provide access to immigration, and to residency and citizenship, to those who want to work,” he said. Being tied to an employer is the overriding problem for low-skilled foreign workers, Luciano said, as the risk of being fired and forced to leave the country prevents many from reporting workplace abuses. For example, in May, an Ontario court found that two female temporary foreign workers were unlawfully fired for resisting their employer’s sexual advances (one of them was forced to perform sex acts) and sent back to their home country of Mexico.

However, it is not just temporary foreign workers who are affected by the program; according to labor groups, it has created broader ripples in the economy. “The evidence is clear: Employers have been using this program to drive down wages,” said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour. The group has documented hundreds of cases nationwide in which employers were allowed by the federal government to bring in temporary foreign workers at wages below market level for the region.

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labor (left), and members of the Canadian Union for Public Employees (CUPE), protest in April outside the airport after it decided to lay off custodial workers.
Brian Harder for Al Jazeera America
Posters at the CUPE protest.
Brian Harder for Al Jazeera America

McGowan was speaking on the sidelines of a rally at a Fort McMurray airport in late April. That month, 26 unionized, custodial airport workers had been abruptly laid off. Their jobs were being contracted out to a company, Bill’s General Cleaning, which planned to hire workers at $14 an hour, half the previous rate. At the rally, organized by the Canadian Union for Public Employees, or CUPE, the workers, all in matching T-shirts that read “Don’t Trash Our Jobs,” were calling for the president of the airport authority to be fired. Marle Roberts, Alberta president of CUPE, said that contracting out custodial jobs was likely a cost-cutting effort designed to squeeze out the union. This was just a week before Alberta’s provincial election, and the incident became a flashpoint in the debate about temporary foreign workers displacing Canadians, with both the opposition parties at the time, the New Democratic Party and the Wildrose Party, denouncing the Airport Authority for its actions.

One of the laid-off workers, Glenda Higdon, had come to Fort McMurray from the Philippines as a nanny nine years earlier, under the old visa rules. Since that time, she had worked her way up to a union job at $28 an hour, which had given her the financial means to purchase a mobile home in Gregoire, a community filled mostly with the small, boxy clapboard houses just 10 minutes from the airport. Now, the airport authority’s actions were threatening all she had achieved. She had been able to make her mortgage payments and support her disabled husband and 2-year-old son. The $14-an-hour wage Bill’s was offering would not even come close to covering her expenses, she said.

“They fired us in a bad situation. We cannot go somewhere else,” said Higdon. A month later, Bill’s offered her a job as a supervisor, at a salary only $2 less than what she earned in her old position. Reluctant to cross the picket line, but feeling as if she didn’t have other options, Higdon accepted.

Jimmy and Shellymar Downer.
Brian Harder for Al Jazeera America

Jimmy Downer, a native of Jamaica, is fond of saying he’s adaptable, a “happy-go-lucky person.” So two years ago, when his temporary-foreign-worker visa was about to expire, Downer applied for a social-work degree program at the local Keyano College. (His temporary-worker visa required him to leave the country after four years; newer rules require workers to leave after two.) The three-year degree will cost him $50,000 in tuition and textbooks, not to mention the lost wages from the time spent in class. But Downer is grateful for the chance to learn new skills and the student visa that has enabled him and his wife, Shellymar, to stay in Canada.

That wasn’t always the plan. “The idea was for me to go [to Canada] for a few years, make some money and come back [to Jamaica],” he said. Before leaving Jamaica, he’d been laid off as a telephone-company surveyor, for which he was earning about $200 a month. At Staples, where he was hired on a temporary-worker visa, Downer earned $14 an hour. That still wasn’t much, considering the high cost of living in Fort McMurray. (The average monthly rent for a one-bedroom is $1,700, and the cost of food is 50 percent higher than in the rest of the province.) But Downer says that Fort McMurray started to feel like home — though he missed Shellymar, who was still in Jamaica. He began to ingratiate himself with the owner of the employment agency that had recruited him to Canada by shoveling snow and mowing the man’s lawn. Eventually, the recruiter agreed to interview Shellymar for a job at Fort McMurray’s Burger King.

“She’s here,” said Downer. “That’s the biggest part of it.”

For many on the temporary-foreign-worker visa, though, saying goodbye has become routine. Two of Larsen Rivera’s housemates recently returned to the Philippines after their visas expired. Rivera was sad to see them go, although they can continue to keep track of each other through Facebook. In the meantime, two other Filipinos have replaced them in the house.

Larsen Rivera.
Brian Harder for Al Jazeera America

It took Rivera two attempts to get to Canada from Kuwait, where he had worked for six years in its nascent fast-food industry. The first time he tried, he paid an employment agency $350 (over two weeks' wages for him at the time) before finding out that he had been scammed. But from the moment he arrived in Fort McMurray, Rivera was inseparable from the five other Filipinos who had been hired with him as Subway “sandwich artists” through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. They lived together in a $2,200-per-month, two-bedroom basement apartment owned by a Filipino couple who wanted to help new Filipino émigrés.

His original housemates — “batchmates,” as he calls them — have scattered. Two moved to Edmonton, the provincial capital, after winning permanent residency. One is now a manager at a Subway in Fort McMurray, and the others work at the convenience store chain Macs, Booster Juice and, in Rivera’s case, Sobey’s, where he is now produce manager. His wage has increased from $15.25 an hour at Subway to $26 an hour, which now, even after rent, utilities, other bills and sending money back to his parents for their utilities and medication bills, leaves him much more spending money.

This game of musical chairs will continue as long as Fort McMurray continues to cycle in new workers to help feed, clothe and service those who work in the oil patch, sending them home once their expiration dates arrive. However, fewer foreign workers will be moving here in the near future, due to the new restrictions. And Rivera is skeptical that fast-food outlets and retail stores will be able to adequately staff their businesses without temporary foreign workers. Most of his Canadian colleagues at Subway were teenagers who quickly realized that the work, in addition to its low pay, was long, hard and physical, he said. “Their parents are earning really good bucks. They don’t want to stay,” he said. “Why would they stay here for $14 [an hour]?”

Tim Hortons, the donut chain, recently scrapped its plans for a new location at the airport, saying it wouldn’t be able to find enough people to staff the shop. Labor groups say the company would be able to fill the jobs if it simply paid more. But Rivera doesn’t see it that way. “If it weren’t for foreign workers, the food industry would have no expansion. There’d be no progress,” he said. “No one would actually be serving you coffee at Tim Hortons, and no one would actually be making you sandwiches at Subway.”

Rivera says his house has made it a practice to welcome newly arrived Subway staff from the Philippines as they transition into their new lives. “Just stay at our home first, like for a couple of months. You don’t have to pay rent, or just pay a little, just your share of expenses for utilities or food,” said Rivera. “We started that way, at zero, so we’re just paying back.” 

Editor's note: This version of the story corrects the spelling of Larsen Rivera's surname.