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Behind The Numbers delivers timely, progressive commentary on issues that affect Canadians, including the economy, poverty, inequality, climate change, budgets, taxes, public services, employment and much more. Contributors include staff and research associates from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA).The views expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily represent the views of the CCPA. Visit the blog at Behindthenumbers.ca.

Canadians aren't buying the banksplaining about the Temporary Foreign Worker Program

| April 16, 2013
Photo: Francisco Diaz / flickr

So, am I the only parent of small children struck by the familiar tone of RBC's Temporary Foreign Worker damage control message fiasco? In a CBC interview that was basically a clinic for how not to do PR, Chief Human Resources Officer Zabeen Hirji's attempt at banksplaining sounded suspiciously like a Sharon, Lois and Bram singalong: "Who, me? Yes, you. Couldn't be! Then who? iGate hired temporary foreign workers from the global labour market cookie jar!"

(Although kudos to CBC for reminding those of us who haven't seen one in a while what a tough interview -- of a Corporate Canada spokesperson, anyway -- actually looks like.)

While this interview represented perhaps some the most challenging work Ms. Hirji ever has had to do for her paycheque, the eight-minute train wreck was eclipsed only hours later. RBC's President and CEO Gord Nixon continued to insist this unfortunate incident wasn't indicative of how "responsibly" RBC usually handles outsourcing and the "transitioning" of affected employees (which I'm pretty sure is a euphemism for a process that in reality is nowhere near as awesome as it sounds).

Nixon's later admission that perhaps RBC could have handled this situation more "sensitively" -- as if putting some of last year's $7.5 billion in profits towards a hot stone massage and a pick-me-up bouquet would have made a world of difference -- didn't do much to quell the public outrage that included calls for a boycott of Canada's largest bank.

After all, as any parent knows, it's a little difficult to believe a corporate line that bears a striking resemblance to a child actively cramming the last piece of chocolate into his mouth while alternating between a mumbled "sorry, Mommy" and "Daddy did it".

Outsourcing is not new, and certainly not new to banks (because as we know it's not just RBC that has engaged in this practice, or in the practice of "not" hiring temporary foreign workers). But now we have legislation that amounts to, according to Armine Yalnizyan, a public policy pile-on, sacrificing a secure workforce and decent standard of living on the altar of corporate profits.

As Erin Weir explains, with little public consultation -- or, you know, evidence -- the Temporary Foreign Worker Program has added the equivalent of a small province (bigger than Newfoundland and Labrador or PEI, but not quite as big as New Brunswick) to the Canadian labour market.

The cynic in me might suggest that the enormous take-up enjoyed by the program has a little something to do with allowing employers to pay temporary foreign workers 15 per cent less than the prevailing wage. Would TFW be as popular if employers had to pay wages at parity? Or does the popularity of the program have more to do with employers seeing the additional profit potential in further underpaying already vulnerable workers?

We were assured that temporary foreign workers were only there -- on a, well, temporary basis -- to meet the market needs that Canadian workers were unable to fulfill (either because, depending on this week's target of convenience, universities aren't "educating for today's workplace needs" or because "Canadian workers don't have the required work ethic").

But clearly in the case of RBC, the issue is not a skills mismatch -- in fact, the "soon-to-be-transitioned" employees were training the people who would be replacing them. It's equally unlikely that McDonalds, Tim Hortons and Maple Leaf Foods (just three of the employers identified in an Access to Information request by the Alberta Federation of Labour) require a skill level of their employees that is currently absent in the Canadian workforce.

Caterpillar Canada -- who shut down its London Electro-Motive plant and relocated to Indiana to take full advantage of recently-passed so-called Right-to-Work legislation -- refused to comment on its hiring of temporary foreign workers. And apparently, in spite of the 1.4 million unemployed Canadians (six for every unfilled job in the country), without being able to hire 2,000 temporary foreign workers, "many Tim Hortons restaurants would not be able to open full-time, or in many cases, remain open at all."

Really?

In spite of the understandable public outrage at hugely profitable corporations choosing to hire temporary foreign workers at 15 per cent less than what they would have to pay Canadian workers, we need to recognize what this is really about.

It's not about a "skills mismatch" or a "labour shortage". It's not about "a few bad apples". And it's not about "foreigners" taking "Canadian jobs".

It's about governments implementing public policy that facilitates and reinforces corporate greed over public benefit without giving sufficient thought to the consequences. It's about driving down wages for all workers, while taking advantage of a temporary labour pool that, because of economic insecurity, is unlikely to speak out or fight for a better standard of living or improved workplace conditions for all of us. And it's about the pervasive assumption that, like a spoiled child, what the market wants, the market must have. Now.

Ironically, if the lack of a coherent jobs strategy remains unaddressed, and if the structural issues of the temporary foreign workers program -- and its abuse by a number of employers -- is ignored, this government might end up looking like Ned Flanders' beatnick parents who, uncomfortable with disciplining their self-indulgent offspring, have "tried nothin' and are all out of ideas".

Canadians seem to be reaching their limit when it comes to the narcissistic childish behaviour a number of our most profitable corporations are demonstrating; the taking for granted of the very individuals on whom corporate profits depend; the disregard for those people who, in some cases, even help pay the bills.

And as RBC is discovering, it turns out that when Canadians are this fed up, even corporations might get grounded.

Photo: Francisco Diaz / flickr

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