Migrant work: A worldwide game of musical chairs plays out in Atlantic Canada

Photo: flickr/Dennis Jarvis

On March 7 New Brunswick Conservative MP John Williamson summed up the racialized caricature the Conservative government is using to prop up its economic policies in the Maritimes: lazy white locals and hardworking transnational migrants.

But transnational migrant workers coming to the Maritimes have more in common with the many locals who migrate to Alberta for work than the Conservative government would have us believe.

After a decade, the two-tier model of flexible migrant labour in the Maritimes is deeply entrenched, and it is variations on the same economic realities that drive migration for local workers and for transnational migrants.

For starters, both groups are staring down staggering wage gaps that have been produced by retrograde economic policy, unfettered resource extraction, the undermining of food-based natural resource industries, and more. Both groups of migrants lack dignified employment options at home and are increasingly encouraged to train for long-distance labour markets. Ultimately, these workers are seeking basic economic security and opportunities for their kids.

In both cases, this fracturing of life and work is a free-market fanatic's dream. For employers, access to workers without the excess baggage of family and community relationships means a cheaper and more compliant workforce. Because of their isolation and many workers' dependence on their employers for housing and mobility, both workforces face heavy regulation and behavioural discipline. Since they are away from their families and "here to work," workers are more willing (and less able to refuse) to work long hours and weeks, or even months, with no time off.

Meanwhile, sending governments benefit from remittances through taxation, fees and the lucrative recruitment industry, quietly turning a blind eye to the steep social costs of mass labour migration. Receiving governments, similarly, benefit: they are able to externalize the costs of social reproduction -- education, health care, eldercare, etc.-- both for workers, who often only migrate during their productive years, and for their families, who stay behind.

This two-tier remittance economy -- Maritimers in Alberta and transnational migrants in the Maritimes -- is a wholesale increase in flexibility that ensures employers have access to the right workers, at the right time, with the right skills, willing to work for the right wage. This model of mobile labour also ensures that, when workers are no longer needed, they are easily disposed of. Employers face no long-term accountability to their workforce: rather than retrain workers for changing market conditions, employers fire their workers and send them home.

But, while these commonalities may form the basis of some mutual understanding, the key difference between these two tiers of migrant workers' status should not be understated.

Seasonal workers in the temporary foreign worker program are always measuring their legal status in the weeks and months remaining on their work permit. When the work permit expires at the end of a season, so does their access to health care, the EI benefits they've paid into, and their access to legal processes without risk of detention and deportation. Citizenship, that is, is Canada's social, legal, and racial basis of exclusion: systematically ensuring access to a low wage, low rights workforce for employers, while preserving the ongoing vulnerability and disposability of transnational migrant workers.

While families and communities of Maritimers working in Alberta lose parents and community members for weeks or months at a time, the transnational seasonal workers in these same communities are separated from their children, spouses, and ageing parents for years on end.

Disposability comes home

In 2014, after years of ignoring repeated warnings and red flags, several high profile media scandals made the Temporary Foreign Worker Program a political embarrassment. The solution for the Canadian government, outlined by Immigration turned Employment Minister, Jason Kenney in a document entitled "Putting Canadians First," is to use the out they'd had all along: deportation.

After years of work, taxation, and paying into social programs they can never hope to claim, the Canadian government is pushing transnational migrants out of their jobs, and out of the country. 

Meanwhile, in the oil industry, falling oil prices mean rising uncertainty for Maritime communities. Amidst the constant talk of layoffs, workers are quietly coming home. As Alberta license plates start to pepper the region, families re-learn how to live together, bills pile up, and the many communities that depend on remittances wait in a suspended state of anticipation for the price of oil to go up again.

A circuitous race to the bottom

Perhaps the most egregious thing about John Williamson's comments about race and work was that what he said about the system rang true. He not only named the racialized system of labour exploitation at work in this region, but he also hitched the 'problem' of the temporary foreign worker program to the 'problem' of undeserving white poverty.

The 2014 changes to the TFWP specifically target high unemployment regions, squeezing temporary foriegn workers out of positions they have held for years and dramatically increasing the risk of deportation. The implication is that workers from the global south are not entitled to any degree of status where they live and work, while local seasonal workers and unemployed people should take any job available.

Whitie and the job thief are two of the Conservative government's favourite -- and most mutually productive -- villains: one has been used to claw back support for the poor and unemployed; the other, to garner support for racist immigration policies. Together, these caricatures have helped blame people for their poverty, pit workers against each other, and deny people the status and dignity everyone deserves.


Josie Baker is a queer feminist community educator whose work includes migrant worker rights, reproductive justice, and food sovereignty in Prince Edward Island. She is a member of Cooper Institute.

Katie Mazer is working on a dissertation about labour migration between Canada's East Coast and extractive industries in Western Canada. She is the rabble.ca Atlantic Beat Editor and a member of the PEI Coalition for Fair EI.

Photo: flickr/Dennis Jarvis


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