The Flow of Foreign Workers

Due to its low overall birth rate, Canada relies on immigration to supply enough labour to meet the demands of a growing economy. In 2006, there were just over 170,000 temporary foreign workers in Canada, which represents a 122 percent increase over 10 years. Between may 2006 and May 2007 there was a 400% increase in demand for foreign workers in Alberta, which gives you an idea of the labour shortage we have been facing

That means that we are welcoming workers from all over the world to come to Canada. Now traditionally that has meant that the immigrants have been highly educated and skilled workers, however with our booming economy and the labour shortages in the west in particular we have been welcoming other less skilled workers as well.

In BC and Alberta there is currently a 2 year pilot project underway by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) that is attempting to balance our labour needs with our efforts to hire Canadians, and the well-being of the foreign workers in Canada. The program allows for an expedited processing of temporary work permits for foreign workers in 12 designated occupations and lets them come work here for a period of up to 12 months before they have to return home. The foreign worker program will directly have an impact on approximately 25% of the job market in BC & Alberta.

So now we are accepting workings from all corners of the globe. They are coming from countries such as the United States, Mexico, France, and the Philippines. With new workers, especially new workers from overseas, come safety challenges. Temporary foreign workers are covered by the same labour legislation and have all the rights that Canadian workers enjoy. But how do you keep employees safe when they don?t speak English or are unable to read the safety manual?

That is the exact challenge faced by a number of employers though. These new employees as dearly needed as they are far less likely to be aware of workplace safety concerns and procedures. Workers with lower literacy levels may not be as aware of their legal rights, such as the right to refuse unsafe work and the right to compensation. It may also lead to under reporting of workplace injuries because of the onerous (written) procedures involved in filing formal claims.

Some worksites are adapting signage for easier understanding for ESL employees, some are going to greater lengths in trying to communicate their health and safety programs and policies, often with varying degrees of success.

In addition foreign workers often face other challenges on worksites. Discrimination and harassment in the workplace are generally not assumed to be occupational health and safety issues, but human rights issues. While there are numerous legal methods available to address them, and the laws are there to protect all, some people do face discrimination a harassment and it has health and safety implications. Often such behaviors are part of the social environment and create a safety culture that is less than beneficial to the foreign workers.

This poor safety culture combined with the stress of a new country, new culture, new jobs can effect people in unexpected ways. Research shows that stresses like these can be triggers that cause depression, anxiety, and anger and that also has a direct link to an increased risk of a variety of health problems including cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and infectious diseases. Wow, all that just to come to another country and try to make a better life for yourself and your loved ones and help meet our short term economic needs.

Now would be a good time to remind the employers that they all have a duty under the Occupational Health & Safety acts to provide all their employees with the appropriate safety training to enable them to do their jobs without risk of illness or injury.

The language barriers seem to be the biggest hurdle facing both employers and employees. Most ESL employees have varying levels of difficulties with english, although many of them try hiding it from their employers for fear of not getting work.

Clearly foreign workers while ?protected? under our laws have far less awareness of the occupational health and safety ?umbrella? that protects them.

So what can we do to make this situation better for all. Well for starters companies safety representatives should ensure that both workers and employers are aware of the legal requirement of the employer to ensure the health, safety and welfare of the worker regardless of their employment status and languages they speak. There needs to be a real effort to counteract the language barriers and ensure that safety messages don?t go over their employees heads.

The key to dealing with most issues around the health and safety of foreign workers is exactly the same as for other workers. That is to ensure that there is a full and adequate risk assessment. Few foreign workers report knowing of a risk assessment having been done for their job and it is quite clear that, in many industries where foreign workers are concentrated, risk assessments are rare. Even where a risk assessment has been done, it is unlikely that it has covered many of the issues that might be specific to foreign workers, such as cultural differences or language problems. The process of drawing up an adequate risk assessment will, in itself, ensure that the mind of the employer is focused on the real issues necessary to create a positive heath and safety environment within the workplace.

In addition, safety representatives can make sure that workers are aware of the importance of reporting any illness, injury or near-miss, ensure that accident books are regularly checked, and seek information from management on what steps they are taking to investigate any reported injuries. This is best done by ensuring that training programs are available and properly designed to cover this.

All this is the just the basics of course, it is up to all of us to keep working to make our work sites safer for all of us, no matter where you come from and no matter what ome you are going back to.

Stay safe and I will talk to you again next week.