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Ashok Kumar came to Alberta from India in 2014 as a fast-food worker. He previously lived in Saudi Arabia doing construction work but found the conditions for foreign workers there to be very difficult. “They treated us like slaves. People died and no one cared. So I decided to come to Canada. It isn’t perfect here, but it is better than working for the Saudis. My family needs the money that I send home very much.”

Like many temporary foreign workers (TFWs), Ashok sends a portion of his wages back to his home country. In 2015, migrant workers in Canada remitted approximately $2.9 billion dollars to India alone. Total remittances by all migrant workers in Canada were at least $23.7 billion. “I am also hopeful that I can eventually become a Canadian citizen.”

Trapped in a Job

Ashok’s current employer owns three fast-food franchises spread over two small towns in northern Alberta. It can be hard to find long-term employees among local residents. “The town people will come, work for a few months and then leave for an easier job or one that pays better. The work is not very interesting and does not pay as well as other jobs Canadians can get. “My boss says always training new people is expensive. So she prefers to hire foreign workers who will stay working for her. There are six of us and we rotate between the locations.”

Ashok’s work permit is issued under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and names his employer. In order to change jobs, Ashok would need to find another employer willing to hire him and able to secure a federal Labour Market Impact Assessment. “We stay with our employer because, realistically, we have no way to change jobs unless we work under the table as undocumented workers.”

Life in a Northern Town

Despite having co-workers who share similar circumstance (as well as a house), Ashok finds his life in small-town Alberta isolating.

Getting to Edmonton, though, has posed some challenges. “My friend Gurpreet got a Canadian driver’s license last summer. He bought a car on kijiji. When we have a day off, as many of us who can go to Edmonton to shop or visit. No one told us about driving on icy roads. We had a very scary trip last November. Why does no one tell foreign workers about this? We now have winter tires.”

Living on Display

Travelling to Edmonton also offers Ashok some anonymity that he can’t find in his small town. “The people in town? They smile and are mostly nice. But everyone here is white. Or Indigenous. We are like the only really brown people in town. Everyone knows who we are and where we work and sometimes they stare. “Some have called me names but that is rare. More often, I am just treated different than them. We do not like the local doctor, for example. He treats foreign workers different than white people. That is troubling when you are sick and he tells you to go back to work.”

Housing Costs and Wage Theft

Ashok has some reservations about his employer’s practices. “She is a nice lady. But she is also a boss. So she runs things to her benefit. She charges us a lot of money for our housing. Maybe too much. It is hard to say because there is no other place to live.”

“We do not get paid breaks. She changes our shifts without much notice. And she never pays us over time when we have to stay late to clean or cover a shift when a Canadian does not show up.” Ashok and his co-workers have been reluctant to voice their concerns. “She is the boss and she can send me home if we complain.”

While the federal government requires employers to meet provincial Employment Standards, the federal government has no system to ensure employers meet their obligations. And Ashok dismisses complaining to the provincial government about unpaid wages or sudden shift changes. “I would be crazy to call the government. I would be fired and then sent home. I need this job and my family needs this money. It is better than Saudi was so I stay quiet.”

Unions are for Canadians

Ashok and his co-workers briefly explored the idea of forming a union in order to improve their working conditions. Some of them even went so far as to meet with a union organizer on a rare trip to Edmonton. “The organizer was nice but he was realistic. He said the employer would eventually find out and would threaten to send us home. So we had to be ready for that if we wanted to proceed.”

“Two weeks later, she said she had heard we were talking about a union. She said she would close down her business if a union came in because it would be too expensive. The union would just take our dues and we would have no jobs. That was the end of the union talk. I don’t know how she found out—maybe someone told her to try and gain her favour?”

Becoming a Permanent Resident

Ashok hopes to transition from being a TFW to a permanent resident under the Alberta Immigrant Nominee Program (AINP). But the AINP is often over subscribed and, as a semi-skilled worker, he also needs his employer to nominate him. “So far, my boss has not nominated any of us. I think she worries that, if we become permanent residents, we will quit and go to Edmonton and work for someone else. So she make promises but nothing ever happens.”

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