The federal government is warning carriers that any abuse of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) will result in serious penalties including hefty fines and permanent bans.
The warning was issued by Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) amid allegations that some fleets are cashing in on the Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) process, which allows companies to hire people under the TFWP.
Before any foreigner can be hired for a particular job, employers have to prove that no Canadian is available to fill the position, and that is done through the LMIA process, supervised by ESDC.
A positive LMIA is issued by ESDC through Service Canada under TFWP, which was launched many years ago to ease shortages of skilled workers in various sectors of the economy.
In a statement emailed to Road Today on Friday, an ESDC spokeswoman said the department will not tolerate any abuse of the program.
“Employment and Social Development Canada takes the integrity of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and the protection of foreign workers very seriously,” said Marie-Eve Sigouin-Campeau.
She said, to protect workers from possible retribution, the department has decided not to disclose information regarding specific cases, including whether or not there is an active investigation of an employer.
The public can report potential wrongdoing and misuse of the program through a confidential tip line, she said.
“All allegations are reviewed and appropriate action is taken. If criminal activity is suspected, the information is forwarded to law enforcement agencies such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA),” Sigouin-Campeau said.
In its most recent action against immigration fraud, the CBSA announced last month a slew of charges against four South Asian businessmen in B.C. That case is still in court.
Sigouin-Campeau further warned that ESDC has the authority to inspect employer activities including visiting employer worksites with or without notice to ensure they are meeting the conditions of the program.
Employers who are found to be violating the terms are subject to serious penalties, she said.
“This includes monetary penalties up to a maximum of $1 million in a given year, permanent bans from using the program and having the names of their companies and information on the violations published on a public list, managed by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (ICRC), Sigouin-Campeau added.
When the Quebec government abruptly decided to throw out some 18,000 immigration applications early last year, international students were among the most affected.
Their immigration hopes were dashed overnight after years of waiting.
“KN”, an electronics engineering student from an Asian country who submitted his application four years prior, was rattled by the surprise move.
But he was still in a better position than most – he had a three-year open work permit and a truck driver’s licence.
KN quickly managed to get a driver’s job in Ontario, once again raising his hopes of getting permanent residency.
But that, too, was short-lived as the carrier, based in the Peel Region, started demanding money for processing his documents, once his permit expires at the end of the year.
In tapes recorded by KN and made available to Road Today, a company executive is heard bargaining the amount of money it needs to secure a positive LMIA.
The conversation comes to an end when KN rejects the final “discounted” figure of $15,000, calling it “unfair”. He subsequently leaves the job.
“I am not alone. This is happening every single day, and there are so many victims,” KN said of the LMIA abuse.
His plight just illustrates what international students and other temporary workers are going through in their pursuit of the Canadian dream.
Since 2015, those applying for permanent residency have received additional points through LMIA-based job offers, helping their Express Entry applications.
And, that has led to abuse of the process by all sorts of industries, from trucking and construction to health services and fast food.
The abuse is widespread in the trucking industry, which has faced an acute shortage of drivers over the past few years, with fleets small and big charging potential employees anywhere between $15,000 and $60,000 for a positive LMIA – all paid in cash to avoid any paper trail.
To put that into perspective, a person earning the minimum wage in Saskatchewan has an annual income of less than $24,000.
LMIAs are issued to companies based on their size, and for many carriers they have become another revenue stream.
The demand for LMIA-based job offers has soared amid a surge in student arrivals over the past few years.
In 2018, more than 721,000 international students were enrolled in schools across Canada, according to the federal government. More than 50% of them came from two countries – India and China.
Many of these students can’t afford to go back to their home countries because they are already in deep debt after paying inflated tuition and other expenses.
Their only option is stay in Canada until they get their permanent resident (PR) cards.
That is where trucking plays a major role, according to immigration consultant Baljit Bawa, director of Sunrise Migration Inc. of Mississauga, Ont.
“There is no rule or clause in the licensing (regime) that says you cannot obtain a commercial licence. Even if you are a visitor, you can get one.”
Once they get the licence, they embark on a search for a sponsor, and there are numerous trucking companies willing to offer sponsorships for “favorable dividends”, Bawa said.
“It is a safety issue right now for all residents of Canada that must be addressed by the Ministry of Transportation immediately. Any visitors or international students should not be given licences before they get their residence permits.”
He said there is no proper vetting before an LMIA is issued to a commercial carrier.
“I can just say, ‘I am buying 10 more vehicles, so I need 10 more drivers.’ There is no cross check of whether you are actually going to buy them or not. Just a letter from a CPA (Chartered Professional Accountant) or a lawyer satisfies ESDC requirements to issue a positive LMIA.”
Bawa said the department only sees the paperwork from a company.
“They don’t see whether that company even exists.”
So, how can a company with just a couple of trucks afford to hire a dozen drivers? Bawa said that is easy, because, the company makes a lot of money just by offering to sponsor them, and second, the drivers seldom get paid for their work, or are paid next to nothing.
Small towns new target
Industry insiders say some immigration lawyers are working in collusion with carriers in exploiting job seekers.
In some cases, lawyers are traveling to small towns across Ontario to convince unsuspecting companies that they can make some quick money if they are willing to offer LMIAs.
They typically start the process by advertising non-existent jobs. “LMIA-ready” positions are routinely posted on online employment sites.
The federal government estimates that international students contributed some $15 billion to the Canadian economy in 2018 alone.
While that is a good thing, social worker Binder Singh said foreign students are being exploited by trucking and non-trucking companies alike.
He said the government is well aware of the abuse of LMIAs.
“If you let in almost 600,000 students in the last 4-5 years, what do you expect?” Singh asked.
“The government is making money, but it doesn’t care,” he complained.
Singh had harsh words for fleets hiring student drivers without any concern for safety.
“You’re putting untrained drivers on automatic trucks… I call it murder on the road. That’s what it is. Legalized murder.”
Special Report by Abdul Latheef