CALGARY — Since the economy began unravelling last fall, Thomas has been getting fewer shifts at the manufacturing company where he works.
The plant was shut down all of last week, and now Thomas and some of his co-workers are worried they may soon have no job at all.
"We used to send money back home to our families and now we don't even have money to support ourselves here," he said in Spanish through a translator.
He did not want his last name used because he is worried about getting into trouble with his employer.
Alberta businesses once struggled with an acute labour shortage, with companies scrambling to find both skilled and unskilled workers. Many of those firms started recruiting from overseas in order to fill the gap.
In 2007, there were 37,527 temporary foreign workers in Alberta, according to the most recent government data.
Now with the energy boom rapidly going bust, there is simply no longer a need for all of that extra manpower. The temporary foreign workers are usually the first to go, in order to ensure Canadian jobs are protected.
"The sky has started to fall on all construction workers in Alberta, but it's fallen first and fastest on the temporary foreign workers. There's no doubt," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
If a company wants to hire workers from abroad, it must apply for what's called a labour market opinion to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.
The government must decide, among other things, whether the employer has done enough to hire workers from within Canada and whether there is, in fact, a labour shortage.
If the company is given the go-ahead, the prospective employee can then apply for a work permit, which lasts two or three years, to Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
If temporary workers are laid off before their work permit comes to an end, their options are limited.
Some can find another employer that has permission to hire foreign workers and apply for a whole new work permit, but that process can take up to three or four months.
"It's not like Canadians where they lose their job today, if an employer wants to hire them they can get it started tomorrow," said Ramazan Nassery, who helps newcomers at the YMCA in Fort McMurray, Alta., which saw an influx of foreign workers at the height of the oilsands boom.
"These people cannot survive in the city of Fort McMurray because the rent for one bedroom is $1,000 to $1,200."
The Centre for Newcomers in Calgary has been hearing from a lot of anxious temporary foreign workers since the Alberta economy started to go downhill, said Renato Abanto, who co-ordinates the centre's temporary foreign worker settlement program.
"They don't have a source of income. They cannot pay the rent. They don't have food, so sometimes what we do is we refer them to the food bank or some housing agencies," Abanto said.
Wendy Fehr, communications co-ordinator of Immigration Services Calgary, said about a quarter of the people her centre deals with have been laid off.
"Sometimes family at home are sending money here, which is completely defeating the purpose of them being here," she said. "It's a very sad situation for a lot of people."
Some workers are simply cutting their losses and going back home.
Under the temporary foreign worker program, employers are required to pay the plane fare home for unskilled labourers who have been let go.
But for the skilled engineers, designers and other professions, who often have more options, it's more of a grey area, said Evelyn Ackah, a business immigration lawyer for Fraser Milner Casgrain.
"Their employer has no obligation to send them back home. Usually employers will figure out a way to make it up to them, because they've given up other things, they've moved countries," she said.
"There's a balance where I feel that employers have to be ethical around how they treat their foreign workers, so that we don't get a bad reputation in the international marketplace."
Nelson Molina came from Venezuela, major oil exporting country, with his family two years ago on a three-year temporary permit. The long-time engineer with heavy oil experience bought a house with the intention of making Calgary his permanent home.
Molina was laid off from his job at Jacobs and Company Ltd. about a month and a half ago, and said he has been trying to keep a positive attitude about his prospects.
"When this situation occurs, I know that this is the action for the company. They have to lay off the people because they can't have people working without contracts," he said.
Molina has applied to stay in Canada as a permanent resident and is waiting to hear back. There is a possibility he may be able to find work in Houston, Saudi Arabia or elsewhere, but Calgary is his first choice.
"The other options are outside the country, but of course I prefer to stay here because my family's here and I prefer to stay with them."
Molina qualifies for employment insurance because he has been working steadily for two years. But many temporary foreign workers in lesser-skilled jobs have no worked enough hours to be eligible.
"The way EI is set out, in most cases temporary foreign workers don't qualify for it, but they still pay into it," said Fehr, with Immigration Services Calgary.
"If they could access those more easily, than I think that would be something that would really help alleviate the situation."
The Centre for Newcomers' Abanto said he would like to see the government make the work permits more flexible, so that TFWs do not have to apply for a whole new one if they lose their job.
"Maybe we can provide open work permits. It means that when they come here, they can work with anybody under any industry as long as they're qualified."