Photo: Francisco Diaz / flickr

The Royal Bank of Canada has now apologized for displacing Canadian workers following the whistle blowing by an IT specialist which revealed the plan to replace some 50 Canada-based RBC workers with outsourced work via temporary migrant workers. But the issue is ongoing and beyond RBC. Canadian banks and other employers have been importing temporary migrant IT workers for various projects for some time, and they will continue to do so — likely with ample support of governments.

I first learned of the use of temporary migrant IT workers in Canadian banks from a Toronto-based bank IT worker back in October 2012, when I was presenting on temporary labour migration at the Academics Stand Against Poverty Conference at Ryerson University.

At the time this didn’t shock me. This is because in 2009 I had analyzed province and occupation-specific data on migrant workers entering Canada through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) obtained by the Canadian Labour Congress from Citizenship and Immigration Canada. To my knowledge, data to this specificity has not been released since — but in analyzing the figures, what stood out is the number of temporary migrants being employed in so-called “skilled and high skilled” occupations in which labour supply was high in Canada.

Though little discussed, Ontario holds second place, after Alberta, for employers hiring temporary migrant workers through the TFWP. In addition to IT workers, large numbers of temporary migrant engineers of various specialties were being used by Ontario employers between 2004 and 2008 — despite high unemployment and underemployment among Ontario-based engineers and IT workers.

A few examples from the data help paint the picture. Between 2004 and 2008, a total of 9,089 work permits were issued to migrant computer analysts and programmers employed by Ontario firms. A total of 9,989 work permits were issued to migrant engineers employed by Ontario firms, with a high of 2,351 permits in 2006.

Meanwhile, other Citizenship and Immigration Canada data show that 45,628 internationally educated engineers immigrated to Toronto as permanent residents between 2000 and 2005. By 2005-2006, only 2.5 per cent of newcomers employed in Toronto were working as engineers. 

Despite this vast pool of unemployed and underemployed engineers in Toronto alone — Ontario employers were permitted to hire and rehire temporary migrant engineers through close to 10,000 work permits issued between 2004 and 2008.

Given these numbers, it is difficult not to make the link to the lesser wages and working conditions that the economics of temporary labour migration permits, whether made official in government regulation — as it was last year in Canada — or not.

A June 2010 Statistics Canada study demonstrated that while a Canadian-born worker with a university degree earned 674 dollars per week more than a Canadian-born worker without a degree in 2006, a temporary migrant worker with a degree earned 512 dollars more per week, and a temporary migrant worker from a country of the global South earned only 196 dollars more per week. 

Of course Canadian employers in several other so-called ‘skilled’ and ‘high-skilled’ occupations are using temporary migrant workers. These include employers of registered nurses, physicians, and various skilled trades — some of the most popular being construction millwrights, carpenters, industrial mechanics, motor mechanics and cooks.

There is a particular explanation in each occupational instance as to why employers prefer temporary migrants — in addition to the wage story. For example with registered nurses, as I demonstrate at length in my book, Rethinking Unequal Exchange: The global integration of nursing labour markets, a ‘shortage’ has been created through a history of nursing labour cost control — leading to worsening working conditions and nurses withdrawing their labour from Canadian health systems.

What is perhaps most worrying about all this — also elaborated in the book — is that governments of the global North are increasingly funding the training of workers in countries of the global South, for temporary employment in the global North.

AUSAID, for example, the international development agency of Australia, has funded the restructuring of health labour training in the Philippines, including the creation of new health worker designations. Some of these are shaped to fit into the Australian health labour market, and others involving less training, more responsibility, and far less remuneration are shaped to respond to increasingly desperate demand within the Philippines.

Similarly, in the skilled construction trades — as I learned while conducting research in the Philippines — since 2008, the Philippines Technical Education and Skills Development Agency has been coordinating the creation of training programs in the Philippines based on Canada’s Red Seal Trades. Included in this collaboration are the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology, the Winnipeg Technical College and the British Columbia Ministry of Trade.

In addition to tackling these issues with the principles of unity and justice for all workers in Canada — as argued by Justicia for Migrant Workers, No One is Illegal, and the Workers Action Centre — what is crucial is to keep front and centre how temporary labour migration feeds into the increasing wealth gap being forged between peoples of richer and impoverished countries by corporations and states around the world.


Salimah Valiani is the author of Rethinking Unequal Exchange: The global integration of nursing labour markets (University of Toronto Press, 2012), and Associate Researcher with the Centre for the Study of Education and Work, University of Toronto. She has been working on temporary labour migration issues with workers’ organizations and unions in Asia and Canada since 2001. 

Photo: Francisco Diaz / flickr 

A version of this article was published in the Toronto Star and it is reprinted here with permission.