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A labour shortage solution

Local 1118 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union is based in Red Deer. It’s not a large local, representing people who work in the province’s meat packing industry.

But a report uncovered by CBC News suggests they hold a key to solving the worst aspects of the federal government’s temporary foreign workers program.

Their answer: write it into the workers’ contracts that the employers must assist all temporary foreign hires to become permanent Canadian residents, if the workers can meet the standards required by immigration laws.

Believe me, in my experience, new arrivals will work very hard indeed to meet the standards, if they are given a chance to succeed.

Right now, Local 1118 represents 4,300 members, and about 2,500 of them are temporary foreign workers who have either become permanent residents or are in the process, says the CBC report.

My own rather limited contact with people in the TFW program comes from volunteering in the Optimist Club’s bicycle recycling program. Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed a significant increase in the number of foreign arrivals with limited English coming to us, looking for a free bike.

Demand seems to come in cycles, pardon the pun.

For a while, we were fixing up donated bikes for Spanish speakers. (We always need more bikes of all kinds and sizes; if you have an unused bicycle taking up space in your garage, the Optimist Club of Red Deer can put it back on the road, for people who would be very grateful to have it.)

These days, we’re helping more people from Eastern Europe, plus a number of people from Muslim countries — mothers in traditional dress, bringing children and other relatives who often help translate.

The TFW program does not allow spouses and children to be brought to Canada while the worker is here temporarily. Yet there is a small but steady flow of people coming to our program with children, all seeking the traditional mode of workers’ transportation where they came from — a good working bike.

While we work, our clients often converse in their mother tongue and one word I pick up mid-sentence is “Olymel.” The name of Red Deer’s hog processing plant is the same in every language.

In an environment of temporary foreigners in Red Deer, doing what we all can agree is hard work in a slaughterhouse, what are all these spouses and children doing here?

Local 1118 of the UFCW resolves the disconnect. I don’t do interviews in the shop, but I suspect these are families of Olymel workers who are on their way to becoming Canadian citizens.

That’s what the TFW program should be: a route for Canada to access workers in all the trades that need workers, from people around the world who want to build a peaceful, prosperous life for their families.

Here are some numbers I picked up from another labour group, the — — Alberta gets more than half of the Labour Market Opinions allowed by the federal government, for job openings that apparently can’t be filled by local applicants.

— In 2011, there were 58,840 job openings of all kinds in Alberta, from top skilled pressure welders to fast food workers, that gained LMO approval.

— That year, about 25,500 temporary foreign workers entered the province, in a workforce that must rotate pretty rapidly — there were about 25,000 TFW workers in Alberta in 2011.

— Alberta job growth created about 77,500 new jobs that year, in a population that reports 121,000 unemployed people in the workforce, but looking for a job.

— Alberta’s population aged 20 to 24 has remained pretty stable in recent years, at just over 200,000. Yet the number of these people earning less than $13 an hour has risen to just under 55,000. (No figures on the numbers in this group earning “skilled worker” wages could be found in my search.)

Obviously, simplistic answers will not fix the problems within and created by the TFW program.

But in the meat packing trade for a start, employers and labour are working together on one solution that makes a bad program better. When workers have rights that can be enforced under contract, everyone benefits.

All of Red Deer benefits from growth of permanent residents and their families. The housing market benefits, schools benefit, consumer businesses that aren’t even connected to the TFW program benefit. Very few benefit from permanently rotating workers through our job market who live and work under constant threat of deportation, who do not have the rights the rest of us take for granted.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at or email

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