Clearing a path to success for foreign workers

(Edmonton) As Alberta moves slowly towards another boom and the federal government announces changes in foreign-worker program rules, one University of Alberta researcher says lessons should be learned from recent experiences.

Alison Taylor was co-author of two studies: the first involved nurses brought in through the program to reduce nursing shortages in the province; the other looked at the experiences of tradespeople in Alberta during and towards the end of the last boom. Both groups, she says, encountered disadvantages largely because of the rules and structures of both of the programs, as well as the limitations placed on them as internationally trained workers. Taylor says that clearly communicating expectations and guidelines to workers interested in coming to Canada, and offering more support to them in meeting licensure requirements and pursuing permanent residence, may afford these workers a greater chance of success in the Canadian context.

Licensing issues a stumbling block for many foreign nurses

Taylor says several factors contributed to a lack of success by foreign-trained nurses, mostly from the Philippines. However, the employer’s failure to include the College and Association of Registered Nurses of Alberta (CARNA) in the recruitment process seemed to be the primary issue. She says that these workers found disconnects between what they were promised and what they actually found themselves doing once they arrived in Canada. Rather than working as registered nurses, many were working as licensed practical nurses because of a lack of ability and support to meet Canadian licensure requirements.

“Had CARNA been involved from the start, some of [the registration guidelines and requirements] may have been more apparent. But without that group being present, these workers really were misled. That’s quite apparent from what these nurses said, from their perspective,” said Taylor. “The approach of Alberta Health Services since then has been to just say ‘we’re not going to do it anymore because it was such a mess’ as opposed to saying ‘let’s do it properly if we’re going to do it.’”

Trades workers face issues of certification, isolation, integration

For industrial construction workers recruited to work at the numerous projects around Fort McMurray, the challenges stem not only from issues of certification but also those of social integration. Taylor and Jason Foster, the study’s co-author, found that there was a sense of alienation among the workers because their jobs, which required residence in a camp, left them largely cut off from any social network. Further, to be qualified to work, these individuals also had to become certified journeymen under Canada’s Red Seal Interprovincial Standards Program. Given that the test is provided in English and French only, and contains Canada-centric, technical trade terms, Taylor says it is little wonder that there seems to be such a low rate of success for foreign-trained workers. This setback—and the added problem of a global recession—meant that many found their dreams of working in Canada short-lived.

Taylor found that in this case, the situation was often as frustrating for the employers as for the workers.

“We had a number of cases where foreign workers came one day and were told to go back a week later because all of a sudden the projects had been cancelled or deferred,” said Taylor. “We talked to contractors who were also caught in that process of making promises to the workers, getting them here, and then all of a sudden the recession was in full swing and they were unable to keep them.”

Immigration changes may mean solutions—or merely more problems

Taylor says that before workers are brought in to fill such roles in Canada, there should be a reasonable expectation by the employer that the workers are able to meet the standards of the federal and provincial licensing bodies. She says workers, who have often paid significant fees to recruiters, should also be given some assurance that work will be available. For Taylor, a key concern for both industry and government should be accountability for recruitment and training.

She says the program also suffers from an identity crisis because “you talk to different groups and you get different answers about whether the aim is to attract temporary or permanent workers.

“Further, there’s this expectation for workers to be flexible, but there’s been very little flexibility in the system—the immigration system, the certification system, all of these systems in place are not flexible,” said Taylor. “Recent changes to immigration policies, such as fast-tracking for skilled and professional workers, may introduce greater flexibility into the recruitment of workers but still doesn’t address problems with licensure or expedite paths to permanent residence for workers who have made a strong contribution to Canadian society. Thus, balancing the interests of employers, foreign workers and Canadian workers continues to be a big concern.”