More than 150 migrant construction workers are suing Ottawa, claiming they have been discriminated against under a program that invites them to work in Canada but welcomes only English-speaking candidates when it comes to letting them stay on permanently.
The workers from Italy, Portugal and Poland have been employed in Canada on work permits for at least two years. But under the Federal Skilled Trades (FST) program, they must pass a language proficiency test to be considered for permanent resident status.
“They did not require English to have us work here on work permits. When we wanted to stay, they said we needed to pass the English test to qualify,” said Juvenal Cabral, 48, a Portuguese-speaking custom carpenter from the Azores and one of the plaintiffs in the case. “Why are we good enough to work here but not good enough to stay?’
The migrant workers’ lawsuit comes as the federal government is launching a commercial blitz to promote its new apprenticeship grants in a bid to meet Canada’s shortage of one million skilled-trade workers by 2020.
To allow much-needed skilled trades to immigrate to Canada in a system otherwise geared toward attracting university-educated and highly skilled professionals, Ottawa introduced the FST program in 2013.
The first-year target was 3,000 applicants but the program yielded dismal results: it drew just 266 applications — and fewer than 90 of those were granted permanent resident status.
Citizenship and Immigration Canada said skilled tradespersons are not restricted to the skilled trades workers program for permanent residency — they can be admitted to Canada under other immigration programs, such as the Canadian Experience Class and Provincial Nominee Program.
“The FST program targets a very valuable but narrow category of economic permanent residents. We want to see this stream grow, but recognize these skilled tradespeople also have other programs available to them,” said department spokesperson Remi Lariviere.
“So far, refusals have been due largely to applicants submitting incomplete applications or applying without meeting program requirements. This is not unusual for a new program, while applicants learn the requirements.”
In their lawsuit, the Italian, Portuguese and Polish workers said Immigration Minister Chris Alexander and his predecessor, Jason Kenney, have publicly expressed and implemented a program that favours Irish, English and Australian applicants for their “shared values” with Canadians.
They said Kenney travelled to Ireland and England between 2012 and 2014 to announce and promote the federal temporary workers and trades program, promising they would be entitled to apply for permanent residence after a two-year work permit.
“No such representation nor opportunity was offered to Italians or Portuguese or any other non-Irish/English/Australian countries, or any other linguistic group or nationality, who are only entitled, on the vast average, a six-month permit which they must renew, without break, until they qualify to apply for permanent residence,” their claim said.
About 30,000 temporary work permits in the trades are issued to applicants from Ireland, England and France, the lawsuit claims, while a “measly, chintzy, under-disproportionate number of visas, work permits were issued for the rest of the non-English/French-speaking world.”
Toronto lawyer Richard Boraks, who routinely handles work permit applications for clients, said many English and Irish migrant construction workers simply do not apply for permanent status after their employment stints in Canada.
“The retention rate for these (English-speaking) workers is really low. They are here to make some quick money, then go home. They just can’t stand our weather,” he said. “The federal government is somehow obsessed with shared language and shared culture, but all the employers care about is getting the job done.”
Under Canada’s immigration laws, Boraks said officials have an obligation to open and assess a federal skilled trade application if an applicant “will become economically established in Canada.” Currently, authorities do not even open the file if the applicant did not pass the English test.
The perceived biases against non-English speaking workers and migrants are echoed in the strong Italian-Canadian community and could be a factor in this October’s federal election.
“It should be without contest that a priority list in the 21st-century Canada should be based on a candidacy framed by talent and merit, rather than fluency in English or French,” said the National Congress of Italian Canadians in a letter to Kenney and Alexander obtained by the Toronto Star.
“It is sad to believe that our country considers language fluency to be the exclusive criterion for admission into the country, rather than a foreign worker’s successful economic penetration in the country as determined by Canadian employers.”
Joe Lima, owner of Stonecast Contracting Ltd., a Hamilton-based construction company, said he has managed to expand in the past five years with help from skilled workers from Portugal.
“We have tried to train the locals but they come and leave because this is too tough for them,” said Lima. “These foreign workers are well-rounded. We give them safety training and orientation. They don’t speak fluent English, but sooner or later they will learn the language by living and working here.”
Last year six of Lima’s 20 employees were from Portugal, but three recently left because their work permits were not renewed.
Filip Jose Henriques has failed the mandatory IELTS (International English Language Testing System) test three times. He scored well in the speaking and listening portions but fared poorly in writing and reading.
“The test has nothing to do with construction. I had to write a letter in 150 words to ask a friend for photos taken during a vacation and a 250-word essay to explain why kids learn faster than adults,” said the 27-year-old cement finisher from Leiria, Portugal. “I just feel really bad. The test is not practical to our jobs.”
In mid-January, the government filed a motion to ask the federal court to dismiss the trades workers’ case, arguing the claim “discloses no reasonable cause of action.”
A ruling is pending.