Filipino butcher Eduardo Basa knew little about the small-town meat-packing plant in southern Alberta where he'd secured a job under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

"When I came to Canada, I feel that I'm blindfolded. I don't know where to go," said Basa, about his journey here from Manila nearly six years ago. "I know the name of the company, but what's the process, what's the system?"

A surprise awaited him. He had stumbled into a workplace with a rare guarantee to its transient foreigner workers to help them become Canadians.

Many of the hundreds of thousands of temporary foreign workers, particularly those coming from developing countries to work in gruelling jobs, dream of ultimately getting citizenship. But the process is often complex and littered with stumbling blocks for those brought here to fill short-term labour gaps.

In Basa's case, however, soon after arriving in High River, Alta., on May 27, 2008, he underwent a union-organized orientation. He learned about the Cargill plant where he would be working, helping to bone the muscular necks of the 4,500 cattle processed there every day, and the lingo his fellow industrial butchers might encounter on the floor.

But most importantly, Basa heard about the union he now fell under, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1118.

Making a 'bad' program 'livable'

The Local 1118's collective agreement stipulates that if employers hire temporary foreign workers, they must help them apply to become permanent citizens.

Among other things, that means unionized companies under the Red Deer-based Local 1118 can't hire temporary foreign workers who don't meet eligibility requirements for residency, such as speaking English. If they do, the employer must help them meet the requirements, including teaching them the language.

"I was so excited," said Basa. "I was so eager to bring my wife. I told myself I'm going to do everything and anything as long as my wife will be here and we're together."

Basa began the process to become a permanent resident the following year, and was accepted. A couple of years later, his wife finally landed in Canada. After five years with Cargill, he joined the union last year as a full-time employee.

He's not alone. Of the 1,000 foreign workers who came to work at Cargill's High River plant under the TFW program, about half are already permanent residents, says Basa.

Up to 2,500 of the local union's 4,300 members are temporary foreign workers who have either become permanent residents or in the process, says UFCW Local 1118 president Albert Johnson.

"So a large number of our [temporary foreign workers] have got their opportunity in Canada because of our program," he says.

However, Johnson notes the union doesn't support the federal government's program itself.

"What we've managed to do with our employers is make a bad program into a livable program," he says.

"The answer to this whole foreign worker issue is not temporary foreign workers. It's permanent immigration." 

Making them 'part of the country'

The origin of the union's decision to write temporary foreign workers into its collective agreement has its roots in the influx of the so-called "boat people" from Vietnam in the late 1970s and early '80s. Thousands of refugees flooded into Canada after the Vietnam War ended. Many struggled, lacking English and knowledge about their new home, and unions and church groups stepped up to help them adjust. 

When a pilot project began in Alberta and B.C. in 2002, to bring in low-skill workers under the TFW program for the first time, the union vowed their new members would be treated differently.

"The new members needed to be integrated so … that they felt welcome as part of the union and part of the company and part of the country," said Johnson.

The union made that decision before the pilot project came into effect, and thus, from a position of relative bargaining strength.

Other unions had a more difficult time.  

Unions from across the country periodically ask UFCW Local 1118 for copies of their paperwork, wanting to mirror its success. Few were able to. 

Johnson says most union members don't want to stick out their neck for someone who may be around for only a few years, and employers are reluctant to let go of the "ultimate hammer" held over temporary foreign workers — the threat of sending them home.

"The fact that migrant workers can easily be sent home, that's the overall reason why people think it's difficult to form unions," said Chris Ramsaroop, organizer with the Ontario- and B.C.-based Justicia for Migrant Workers group.

At the industry-run Canadian Meat Council, Ron Davidson says all of its companies, including Cargill, will support their temporary foreign workers in applications for permanent residency, but he doesn't know how many write it into their labour contracts. Cargill said it's not policy to disclose the details of its collective agreements.

Canada's Temporary Foreign Workers Program has come under intense scrutiny in recent months, and the federal government is vowing to clamp down on any companies taking advantage of the program.

Labour laws cover foreign workers, but migrant activists say it's often easy to take advantage of these workers by refusing to pay them overtime or worse, because the workers are scattered across the country with few networks of support.

A 'pretty hazardous step'

Attempts to bring foreign workers in Canada together in collective action have come in "fits and starts," says Jason Foster, co-ordinator of the Edmonton-based Athabasca University's labour relations program.

Often, foreign workers are skeptical of unions, familiar only with the corrupt versions in their homeland. And Foster observes that some union relationships can be contentious. 

In B.C., for example, two unions are fighting a court battle alleging a power company hired temporary foreign workers after sending a Canadian crane operator home. Some companies are alleged to have brought in short-term workers from abroad to weaken existing unions.

Foster points to the Red Deer-based Local 1118 as an "example of a union actively taking on the issue and actively advocating on behalf of temporary foreign workers."

"It's hard enough for a permanent resident to successfully organize a union in this country," he says. "If you have that extra level of precariousness, that's a pretty hazardous step to take."

Some foreign workers, like live-in caregivers, have formed informal relationships or support groups in some communities, Foster notes. If an employer mistreats one of them, the caregivers rally together to either confront the employer or offer help. 

The southern Alberta union notes that the collective agreement hasn't eliminated all problems faced by its short-term workers, but it has given them an enforceable mechanism for dealing with them.

Recently, a high-level manager at one company threatened to send a foreign worker home if he didn't acquiesce to a demand, says Johnson. "That person is in a lot of trouble," said Johnson, and "will never say that again."

Johnson's ultimate hope, however, is that no such agreement is necessary.

"There is a need for workers, but it's a permanent need for workers," said Johnson. "It should be an immigration process."