We will get our meeting going and welcome Stewart Mussel Farms. Stephen Stewart is the owner, from Prince Edward Island. He has his own operation over in P.E.I.
It's good to have you here today, Stewart. You have an hour, between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m., or however long it takes. It could be half an hour, it could be 45 minutes, or it could be an hour. We have up to an hour if you require it.
I know you have an opening statement, so you go right to it.
All right. I have some history with the temporary foreign worker program. I just wrote up a couple of pages about the situation and what happened to my company.
On May 6, 2007, I went to Halifax to pick up 11 foreign workers from Sri Lanka whom we'd arranged to have come to P.E.I. to fill a labour shortage on our mussel farms. We spent $20,000 renovating a house we own next door for them to live in, and we agreed to purchase a 12-passenger van to transport them to work, the bank, the grocery store, and so on. We began the process of bringing these foreign workers to Canada in December 2006. We were told that we had to provide them with return airline tickets, which totalled $21,000. In return, they signed an employment contract agreeing to work for Stewart Mussel Farms Inc. for a period of eight months.
We had a few hurdles to overcome, such as problems with language barriers and the change in temperature and culture, but things seemed to move along quite smoothly. We made it a point every evening to visit with them to make sure they understood everything and to answer any questions they might have. We made sure they got bank accounts set up and social insurance numbers, and we made sure they were able to wire money back to their families. They told me that what they made in less than a week working for my company was more than they could make at home in a month.
On Friday, June 8, a month after they arrived, none of the Sri Lankan workers showed up for work. They had all disappeared. After I contacted the RCMP on their disappearance, officers came to search my property. They brought in police dogs to check for drugs and explosives. After they left, I contacted some local cab companies and found out that at approximately 3 a.m. these 11 workers left in two taxi vans, with no passports, only the clothes on their backs, to head to Ottawa.
I was told by the cab company that they had inquired about the cost of this trip two weeks before they actually left. They had left all their luggage, clothes, and family photos behind. Later the same afternoon we located them on the west side of Montreal by talking to the cab company. After reporting their whereabouts to the RCMP and Citizenship and Immigration, we were told that they were breaking no laws. The work visa stated that they could only work for Stewart Mussels Farm, Inc., but they were free to roam and travel where they wanted until April 2008, when their visas expired. And as long as they worked for no one else, they were okay.
I asked if they would be intercepted and questioned, and I was told that they would not be. At this point I was getting very annoyed and asked the question, “What if they're on the way to blow up the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa?” The answer was that then someone would be in trouble.
Once Citizenship and Immigration got involved, we were told that this kind of thing happens all the time. The foreign workers disappear, never to be found again. This was news to us. If this was the case, someone in government should at least have given us a heads-up that this happens all the time. We don't understand how this is possible. They signed employment contracts with us, but because of the way the Canadian laws are written, these foreign workers are free to roam the country for the length of their visa, and we were now worse off than before bringing these workers here. We were now short 11 workers and down the $50,000 we had spent to bring them here, house them, transport them, and so on.
In the months since the workers left, there have been numerous messages from Sri Lanka left on the telephone at the house they were living in. One man's wife was crying over the phone, because she had no idea where he was. One of them has kept in contact with us on a fairly regular basis. He's living in Toronto, working as a dishwasher. He knows where the rest of them are and what they're doing. Another has phoned looking for his T4 slips. He told us very proudly that now that he is living in Canada, he has to file taxes.
Many stories have emerged as to why they left, but it boils down to their not wanting to go back to Sri Lanka when their visas expired. We have even had calls from Sri Lanka wanting to know if we need any more workers. When I told this to one of the guys who left, he laughed and said, “Yes, everyone wants to come to Canada now.” In other words, it's too easy to get here and stay. Canadian immigration seems to be a joke to them.
We've been criticized locally for bringing foreign workers in to work. Some have even commented that we got what we deserved. We felt this was the only way to fill the shortage of workers. If there were people here who wanted to work, we'd hire them. Some people are not cut out for labour work, and others just don't want to do it.
Our labour market opinion, which we had to work hard to get, has expired, and now we have to start the entire process again if we're looking to bring in workers. The bottom line is that we have mussel farms that need workers who want to work and will show up.
I'm not against immigration. I believe our country is in need of a greater workforce for labour jobs. I feel Canadians need to realize how easy it is for foreign workers to come to Canada, leave the company they were supposed to work for, and travel freely around Canada without worrying. As long as they don't legally work for anyone else, they aren't breaking any laws. This is not acceptable to employers like me who spend thousands of dollars to bring the workers here, or to Canadians whose tax dollars help to support the workers while they are here living in Canada.
In conclusion, in my opinion there are some serious flaws in the foreign worker system that need to be fixed. This country was built on the dreams of immigrants coming here to work and get a better life for themselves and their family. This is the way the foreign worker system should work, not as a joke to the ones back in the home country looking for a quick way to beat the regular immigration process.
This raises another question, then. They sound as though they have skills and can be employable and can be absorbed by other parts of the economy. What we tend to do is put over-qualified people into jobs they don't need all those qualifications for.
What comes to mind is that Tim Hortons recently hired 100 people from the Philippines, all university graduates, and they're working at Tim Hortons in Alberta at $12 an hour. I wondered about the advisability. If I were running Tim Hortons, why would I want university graduates employed for a year, when I know full well that once the year expires I'm going to lose them? If I didn't have university graduates, the chances are that I would probably have a better chance of retaining them.
I raise that because it points to the fact that we need menial labour, which takes some skills, but when you require too much in the way of qualifications, you might have this happen.
Could you provide the committee with a copy of the contract you had with them? I would really like to see it. I think it would be useful for the committee as we study this and make recommendations.
What they've done is almost assure themselves that when the visa expires, they either go underground or they'll leave the country.
As a complement to what my colleague has said, there is another thing I'd like to check. Some of the questions Andrew was asking have to do with you personally, and what has happened to you.
I've worked with refugees and I've worked with people from Sri Lanka, but this is the first time I've heard of this. I should have known, human nature being what it is, but it's actually the first time I've heard such a story, and I wonder whether we could ask the researchers to check as to whether Immigration Canada follows up on this kind of abuse--because it is abuse, abuse on the part of these employees who use the system to their own ends, and we know that this system is used by a lot of people.
I wonder if Immigration Canada keeps a file so that if an individual who has worked for Mr. Stewart, for example, disappears and then figures he's going to be asking for refugee status--well, hold on a minute, there's a file, and we know that he's.... That's one thing. Then we could also check in the file if that man tries to come back to work for another employer in two or three years' time. His name should be kept on file so that we know if he's already done something that may not be against the law but is certainly against the rules as we all understand them.
We were very surprised that they left and didn't take a change of clothes. They didn't take anything. We had their passports and all their personal information in a safe, to keep those things safe for them.
One of the things Immigration told us was that this would be their plan, and that if we had not located them through my work in talking to the taxi drivers, Immigration offices in Ottawa and wherever would not even have been expecting these people to leave their employment with me.
Officials told me that in this type of situation they walk into the office and complain and identify themselves as somebody they're not, so that their names are not in the system. I was told that a typical story would be that they came from out west, where they were being abused, and that they took off and were now claiming refugee status.
Only because we pursued the matter and tried to locate them, because we were genuinely concerned for what had happened to them--
Mr. Stewart, this is something they don't know, but I happen to have worked on the Immigration and Refugee Board and I can tell you that you don't just walk in and say you're a refugee. That doesn't work.
Some people can take advantage of the system, yes, but just so you know, if one of these individuals had shown up and said that he worked for an employer who was not behaving as he should have towards an employee--for example, in terms of living conditions, or whatever--then people would check up, you know. We would ask for the name of the employer and check up on the employer and do that kind of thing. If he comes with another name, then you have to put all the pieces of the puzzle together, and it's not always easy.
The thing is, there is another individual between you and the employee. In French we call that person un intervenant. That is the individual who actually hired these people in your name, who went and got them in your name--this entrepreneur, if you like. My impression of those I've met is that once the employees get on the farm or wherever, that's the end of the entrepreneur's responsibility. If you got hold of the entrepreneur to say that these guys had walked out on you and asked the entrepreneur not to deal with them if they asked to come back, I'm not sure it would even be worthwhile.
I think what would really hurt these people is for Immigration Canada to know. I would even suggest that you write a letter to the minister or to the chair of the Immigration and Refugee Board in Ottawa mentioning the names of these people and saying you have heard they intend to ask for refugee status, and explaining what the situation is. The names of these people would be put on the record in their file, and if they ever tried, something would light up on the computer. That's what I would suggest you do.
What I find surprising is that this is the first time this has been pointed out to us since I have been on this committee. Yet, department officials discussed several problems with us. I'm pleased that you came to speak to us about your case. I think that everyone is surprised. Now we need to see whether this is a common problem and I look forward to hearing the department's comments.
The most surprising statement you made is that this happens all the time. Why is it that an attempt has not been made to find a solution?
What this demonstrates more broadly is that when a system does not work, when it is rotten, as ours currently is—let's be frank—when waiting periods are extremely long and when the process makes no sense, people try through any possible means to bypass the law or the system.
Individuals who have testified before us have told us that some people apply for refugee status rather than immigration simply because processing a refugee application is faster than processing a standard immigration application. What we're seeing today is individuals using this program to come into the country, and then once they are here they leave and go elsewhere.
I have no more questions but it is not because I don't find this interesting. It's so new. We heard your testimony and I am now looking forward to hearing what the Department of Citizenship and Immigration will have to tell us about this issue.
I hate to be very negative here, but in fact the immigration department has no responsibility in this matter, as they will tell you very easily. All they do is stamp the visa saying that an individual can come to Canada for a given time to work for this person.
So in fact the contract does not include the immigration department. The contract has three parties to it: the employer, who in this case is you, Mr. Stewart; the employee; and this entrepreneur, or middle man--that's the word I was looking for before--with whom you obviously didn't deal. You thought somebody else was going to be able to answer your needs without going through all that.
So there is no legal responsibility on the part of the department. We might want the department to have legal responsibility, but at this time they don't have it.
Obviously we have no answers for you, Mr. Stewart, as an individual. However, I think the importance of your being here this afternoon is to point out this aspect to us, to show us that in fact these people can disappear out in nature, as we say in French--and then nothing is done.
I would have thought, for example, the RCMP might have been interested in a number of Sri Lankan people coming to Canada and disappearing, given that--I think I read about this only this morning--the RCMP raided a place in Montreal that was raising money for the Tamil Tigers. We know that a lot of people are involved in this. I would have thought the RCMP would have been involved in that. You tell me that they had already gone through security; I don't know.
The important thing here is that you have identified a problem. This is something that we are going to look into, certainly. We're going to get the numbers, just as Mr. Telegdi suggested, and see whether or not there's anything we can recommend to the government by way of giving some protection to the employers. Recommending to government is what this committee is supposed to be doing.
We've looked in the past at giving protection to employees, because in many cases they do need protection, but you've brought up the opposite point of view, that employers also need protection. I think this is something we must look at.