Strike in Ottawa prolongs residency for migrant workers

Around 150 foreign service workers walked off their jobs in Ottawa two weeks ago. That means longer wait times for permanent residency applications for temporary foreign workers.

Around 150 foreign service workers walked off their jobs in Ottawa two weeks ago. That means longer wait times for permanent residency applications for temporary foreign workers.

The Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers, the union which represents the workers, said the strike will affect visa and permanent residency applications.

The processes will be “significantly delayed or completely halted,” said Christiane Roy, a union spokesperson. Only refugees’ applications would be unaffected, but tourists, temporary foreign workers and international students will feel the lag.

The strike couldn’t come at a worse time for Cherelyn Rama, a temporary foreign worker who is a dental assistant in Whitehorse.

“Of course, I’m nervous,” said the former nurse from Bacolod, Philippines. “I was expecting to get my permanent residency this year – if not, I’ll have to renew my temporary work permit again.”

That process can take its toll on temporary foreign workers in the Yukon. Each renewal costs $300 and a trip to Alaska, as migrant workers must process the permit outside Canada.

Rama arrived in Whitehorse in 2010 and filed for permanent residency in 2011.

The union compares its members’ work to that of government economists, commerce officers, policy analysts and lawyers, who make up to $14,000 more than foreign service workers.

Around 1,350 embassy workers have been staggering services since April in 15 of the busiest visa offices in Canada and abroad, including Manila, Delhi and Mexico City. It’s been a bitter battle between the union and government, with both sides accusing the other of bargaining in bad faith.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada has responded by hiring additional staff on a temporary basis to help process visas, said Glenn Hart, a spokesperson for the department.

But Roy said that isn’t true. “They have been repeating this for weeks. Yet our members have yet to see any of these ‘additional staff,’” said Roy.

She also criticized the government for replacing the workers. “‘Additional staff hired on a temporary basis’ will never replace officers who received years of training on immigration law and interview skills,” said Roy.

Rama initially sent her files to the visa office in Buffalo, N.Y., which shut down in May 2012.

Before it closed, the department asked her to send her medical exam results and police clearance, which are necessary to be approved as a permanent resident.

She said she only saw the email four months later, but that she wishes the department would call for such an important matter. Once she replied to the email, the department did pay her a call.

She’s now working on obtaining the police clearance from Manila, which often takes several months to process.

In December, the federal NDP Opposition asserted that thousands of applications for permanent residence sent to Buffalo had languished for more than two years.

The immigration department maintains that the files are being taken care of. “Most of the files that were transferred from Buffalo to the Ottawa processing office will be completed by summer 2013,” said press secretary Alexis Pavlich in an email.

On top of the long wait times, migrant workers in the Yukon are often left in the dark about the status of their applications.

Rama said she did not know who to turn to when she had questions on her application, considering there has been no department official in the territory since October.

The territory aimed to clear up confusion by holding an information session last Friday. Territorial and federal immigration officials, including a representative from the workers’ compensation board and the employment standards branch informed migrant workers of their rights and responsibilities at the session.

It’s the second time the session took place, the first being in April, said Eilidh Fraser, a spokesperson for the Yukon Education Department, which handles immigration in the territory.

A Vancouver-based official with the immigration department, Darcy Bromley, spoke at the recent session. It would have been helpful to migrant workers such as Rama.

The problem is, the session is intended for new temporary foreign workers, who came in through the Yukon Nominee Program three months prior to the session, Fraser said.

Also, individuals cannot ask questions about their specific cases – it’s simply meant to be a general overview of the program. The session is mandatory, so the workers can “familiarize themselves to the obligations to the program and the resources (available to them),” she said.

The government justifies the cutting of an immigration department official in the Yukon in October as a way to eventually improve service.

“The decision to close the visa office in Buffalo was tied to this modernization strategy. By centralizing more processing in Canada, particularly for files that are more straight-forward and with lower risk, CIC can provide better service and create jobs in Canada,” said Pavlich.

Liz Hanson, leader of the Yukon’s NDP Opposition, said the cutting of the immigration official was related to budget cuts from October’s contentious omnibus bill C-45. She criticizes the Conservative Party for undervaluing people who want to become citizens, who need to “have a human being to talk to,” she asserted.

Rama has bigger questions about the immigration system. “Why do some applications take more than two years and some take less than that?”

She hopes to receive permanent status soon, and one day make it back to nursing.

She volunteered as a nurse in the Bacolod Our Lady of Mercy Specialty Hospital in an effort to get a job.

“Your hard work doesn’t pay off as a nurse in the Philippines,” she said. So she decided to try her luck in Canada.

“Right now it’s hard because I’m also paying for the education of my two brothers,” she said in a mixture of English and Tagalog.

Ottawa announced employers would have to pay a $275 application fee if they are interested in recruiting a worker from abroad, which the government predicts would reduce applications by 30 per cent.

However, because the territory recently annexed its own version of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, Yukon employers would not have to pay for the fee for now, Fraser said.

Contact Krystle Alarcon at