Eugene Pavlovych came to Edmonton in 2011 from the small town of Saky on the Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula as a temporary foreign worker (TFW). Based on his previous work in the chemical industry, Eugene was hired to perform unskilled work in a local manufacturing facility.
“It was not exactly the kind of work I wanted to do. The work I did in Ukraine was more skilled. I have university-level training in chemistry. Back home, I was responsible for carrying out multiple-step chemical processes and quality-control testing of the finished product. “But my old company in Saky closed down. This was a paying job and a chance to come to Canada and see if this was a place I might want to live. Many Ukrainians travel for work so this was a normal pathway for me.”
False Promises and a Glass Ceiling
Within a few months of arriving, Eugene found himself disappointed with his job. “Before I arrived, I was told I would start doing basic assembly work. Then I could then earn promotions and maybe even be taken on as an apprentice. Instead, I was still sweeping the floor and fetching tools and parts three years later.”
“It was not about ability. I read and write English as fluently as you do. I barely even have an accent. And they were happy to have me pitch in doing assembly work when there was a rush. But Canadians got promoted past me almost immediately. They were nice and all, but the job was going no where, so I started looking for other work. I’m patient—I was in the Soviet army, after all—but three years? Come on.”
Limited Job Prospects
The problem for Eugene was that finding other work was difficult. Like the other 81,558 TFWs who came to Canada in 2011, his work permit named his employer. He could only work for another employer if he could find one who had or who could get a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) from the federal government that allowed them to hire a TFW. “Basically, your employer has got you once you are here. I could find other employers who wanted to hire me. But they couldn’t or wouldn’t get an LMIA. So I was stuck with my employer, unless I wanted to go back to the Ukraine.”
By 2014, going back to the Ukraine was not an enticing proposition as Russia invaded the Crimea and, later, the eastern portion of Ukraine. “At that point, I was very upset. My home town is occupied by the Russians. I was worried for my cousins. And I was not eager to go back and potentially be called up to the army in the Ukraine or live under occupation in Crimea. Adding to my stress was that my work permit was expiring.”
Undocumented A Pathway to Permanent Residency
The expiry of Eugene’s permit reflected 2011 changes made by the federal government to the low-skill stream of the temporary foreign worker program. Permits were limited to four years. On April 1, 2015, Eugene’s permit—like those of as many as 70,000 other TFWs—expired.
Eugene’s employer was clear that his job would end when his permit expired. But Eugene had met a number of customers while doing deliveries and found one who would take him on if he agreed to work under the table. So Eugene moved to a new apartment 2 blocks from his old one and got a new phone.
“Voila, in 15 minutes, I am Jason Bourne—a man with no past and no future,” he jokes. “I doubt the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) has any idea I am even in the country. Don’t mis-understand—I am not gloating. Just pointing out that there are thousands and thousands of undocumented workers in Canada who are completely invisible.”
“Remaining in the country illegally was not the greatest option. But it was the best option that I had. The pay is better than before—in part, because I don’t pay any taxes, EI or CPP. And I am doing more challenging work. But there are drawbacks.”
“We use some pretty powerful solvents and other dangerous chemicals. I know about these from my past work in Ukraine. I am the one who usually gets the job of applying them and doing the clean up. My boss says it is because I am the most experienced. But really, it is because I am completely expendable to him.”
Eugene’s employer provides respirators and other personal protective equipment. “But he does not monitor exposure levels or durations, as he should. He also does not have an adequate plan in case of a spill or burn. This is very dangerous but what does he care if a Ukrainian dies? It is not like the undocumented worker is going to call the government and turn him in, is it.”
Trapped by the System
Eugene knows a number of other undocumented workers and they report similar experiences. “We were essentially trapped by the temporary foreign worker program. And now we are trapped as undocumented workers. If my employer steals my wages, I can quit. But then he might turn me into the CBSA and I’d be arrested and deported.”
“So I “overlook” that he does not pay me overtime when I have to work late. He overlooks that I cannot legally work here. And I overlook that that he is colluding with me to violate the Immigration Act.”
“It is actually a lot like living in the Soviet Union. You keep your head down and mind your own business. You don’t trust the government at all. And hope for the best.”
The Paradox of Community and Social Isolation
Other undocumented workers comprise most of Eugene’s friends in Edmonton. “They are nice people. What we share is similar circumstances. The Ukrainian community in Alberta is, well, strange. They are very focused on maintaining cultural practices like pysanka (Easter eggs) and costumed dancing. That is all very nice but they have no interest in helping new immigrants or illegals like me.” Eugene remains philosophical about his future, despite his worries. “I worry about getting hurt at work and having my name come up on a hospital computer and the CBSA showing up and arresting me. And having a girlfriend is very difficult since I could be sent back to Ukraine at any moment.”