Manitoba trucking companies increasingly turning to foreign help, but some accused of misusing program

Manitoba’s trucking sector is using temporary foreign workers to fill the ranks of drivers at the highest rate in years, but some of those companies are being accused of taking advantage of newcomers who hope to live in Canada.

An analysis of federal data shows Manitoba businesses in the trades, transport, equipment operators and related occupations sector were cleared to hire 1,467 temporary foreign workers in 2023 — an increase of 1,283 per cent from the 106 employees permitted in 2018, according to figures published by Employment and Social Development Canada.

The demand for temporary foreign workers has swelled across the country and in a range of professions.

But in Manitoba — where employers were approved to hire 3,200 more temporary foreign workers in 2023 than five years prior — the increase is attributed in large part to the transportation sector.

For example, nearly 900 of the workers Manitoba businesses were approved to hire in 2023 were transport truck drivers. The federal program only granted permission for 40 drivers to be hired in 2018. 

Aaron Dolyniuk, executive director of the Manitoba Trucking Association, said companies increasingly have no choice but to look beyond the province’s borders.

“We have an aging workforce,” he said. “Half of the amount of people we are looking to recruit includes people that are retiring out of our workforce.”

Struggling to hire, retain

Provincial labour market data from 2023 suggests Manitoba must train and retain around 3,485 more drivers in the next five years to meet demand.

Driving truck can pay fairly well, said a lawyer who works as immigration counsel for some trucking companies, but the lifestyle of long hours and prolonged periods away from home no longer appeals to many.

“We’re not seeing the same uptake from domestic workers, so we have to make up the shortfall somehow,” said Kenneth Zaifman.

CBC News analyzed federal temporary foreign worker data based on positive labour market impact assessments, or LMIAs — a document proving there are no Canadians available to take a job.

An increase in positive LMIA positions doesn’t necessarily mean there are more temporary foreign workers in the country — for example, an approved employer might change their mind before hiring one — but it at least points to employers’ rising interest in the program.

A man in a black collared shirt is seated in front of a book shelf.
Kenneth Zaifman, an immigration lawyer who has provided counsel to trucking companies looking overseas for hired help, said many companies are legitimately using the temporary foreign worker program to fill staffing agencies, but some misuse the program. (Warren Kay/CBC)

While Manitoba’s labour shortage is well-documented, Zaifman said it’s particularly pronounced in the trucking sector, because the province has become a transportation hub with a number of large and growing companies.

Some trucking companies use the temporary foreign worker program because they’ve exhausted the provincial nominee program, which brings a limited number of skilled workers to the province annually to fill labour gaps.

But the spike in interest in temporary foreign workers in the trucking industry is likely also influenced by the employers and international recruiters who are illegally charging newcomers a fee in the tens of thousands of dollars for a work permit, said Zaifman.

Anecdotally, he’s also heard of cases in which workers aren’t getting promised hours and are being paid less than expected.

That behaviour is “more common than we think,” he said. 

Zaifman said he can attest that many trucking companies handle temporary worker recruitment the right way. His office applies for work permits. He said new workers sign a letter acknowledging they haven’t paid a fee, directly or indirectly, for the job.

But his office has also helped some workers, including truckers, escape abusive situations by supporting their applications for an open work permit specifically for vulnerable workers.

Many other workers stay silent out of fears speaking out would jeopardize their chances at permanent residency, he said.

“The ultimate problem is that those individuals who come … [under the temporary foreign worker program] may not get the objective which they seek, which is a job that pays them,” he said.

“It creates a lot of human hardship.”

Last year, a Winnipeg company known as 10047179 Manitoba Ltd. was sanctioned for breaking laws around the hiring and recruiting of temporary foreign workers. It was fined $258,000 and banned from using the program for five years. 

The Manitoba Trucking Association’s Dolyniuk said the numbered company wasn’t registered as a trucking entity in the province, yet “somehow [was] given permission to recruit truck drivers to work in Manitoba.”

Trucking association asking for help

The association has heard other complaints of foreign workers being exploited with inadequate pay, benefits and protections. It has referred accusations to enforcement agencies and asked the provincial government to establish a working group to examine the issues.

The trucking association wants to root out any misuse of the program, said Dolyniuk.

“It hurts our reputation,” he said. 

“There’s a lot of great employers out there that have fantastic processes, settlement programs for people that are coming to work here, support systems in place, training.”

Manitoba’s NDP government established the working group in January to “get a handle” on exploitation in the trucking industry, said Transportation Minister Lisa Naylor.

The group will have conversations with the federal government and law enforcement to determine ways to move forward, she said.

A man in a white polo shirt is seated in a chair, in front of a big-screen television
Diwa Marcelino, an organizer with Migrante Manitoba, wants stronger enforcement to root out the misuse of the temporary foreign worker program. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

Diwa Marcelino, who advocates for migrant workers as an organizer with the group Migrante Manitoba, said he’s personally heard in the last year from five truckers, most of whom were of South Asian descent, who paid to get work.

He says stronger enforcement of the laws is needed to protect migrant workers, in the trucking industry and beyond.

“The laws are useless if workers don’t have the agency to complain, if they’re fearful of being deported, if workers are fearful for their lives or the lives of their family members back home,” said Marcelino, a brother to Manitoba Labour Minister Malaya Marcelino.

The RCMP said they aren’t currently investigating any complaints in Manitoba around temporary work permits. The Canadian Border Services Agency said it couldn’t provide comment by deadline.

More than a dozen trucking companies reached by CBC News declined comment or said nobody could speak this week to their use of temporary work permits.