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Increasing number of migrant labourers in Nova Scotia deserve adequate protection

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According to a Citizenship and Immigration Canada report, the number of migrant labourers in Canada increased from 177,781 to 432,682 between 2000 and 2010. Immigrant Settlement Integration Services says the number of foreign workers entering Nova Scotia has almost doubled in the last five years, from 1,495 to 2,795 and appears to be a growing trend.

A recent article written by CCPA-NS Research Associate and Dalhousie University Associate Professor Howard Ramos explores these trends.

Ramos explains that temporary foreign workers are those who come to Canada to fill gaps where employers are unable to find the labour they need. The migrants are often able to gain skills and remit money back to their families while working various jobs. Contrary to popular belief, only about two per cent work as labourers, while 25 per cent are clerical workers and another 25 per cent are professionals.

Ramos points out in his letter in the Chronicle Herald that some forms of privatization and liberalization of immigration have potential to inflict serious harm, both on foreign and domestic workers: "The cost of allowing companies to recruit temporary foreign workers is high, both with respect to the potential of exploiting workers in the service sector and in terms of creating a foreign underclass of workers..."

After mentioning some recent legislative efforts to protect foreign workers, he concludes that, "The government of Nova Scotia should be applauded for taking initial steps to protect temporary foreign workers, however, more needs to be done."

A 2010 study by the Institute for Research on Public Policy explored the exploitative nature of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. For migrant labourers, they found the work permit to have "the practical effect of limiting their employment rights and protections. Other problems include illegal recruitment practices, misinformation about migration opportunities and lack of enforcement mechanisms." Because a migrant labourer's residency status is tied to their employer, their ability to challenge abuse from that employer is limited.

A recent study from the University of New Brunswick similarly found "intimidation, fear of repatriation, lack of job latitude in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), difficulties and debts associated with the TFWP's application process, penalties for unsatisfactory work and generalized anxiety," as contributing to migrant labourers' "vulnerability and unprotectedness." (Neil Cole, 2010, "Send Them Home Packing: A Critical Political-Economic Analysis of the Canadian Temporary Foreign Worker Program.")

Because migrant labourers experience greater vulnerability than their citizen peers, employers are able to exploit them to a greater degree. This means poor working conditions and harder work. Overall, Cole concludes that "migrant workers receive very low wages compared to their Canadian counterparts."

Ramos provides concrete suggestions for how the province of Nova Scotia can construct better policy around immigration and temporary foreign workers to reverse these trends.

First, we need a more open dialogue, including better public accounting of foreign temporary work. Until we have better information about this issue it will be impossible for the public to engage in an honest debate about it.

Second, we should form a clear national immigration policy, "that monitors employers of temporary foreign workers and that reports on how the program is being used across different provinces." This would offer greater accountability to those businesses profiting from migrant labour.

Third, both provincial and federal governments need to work to better understand the effects of allowing third-party recruiters to bring labour into Canada. Allowing private companies to capitalize on the market for migrant labour could exacerbate the exploitation of vulnerable workers.

Finally, according to Ramos, there needs to be serious consideration of how we regulate these labour recruiters. By endowing immigration with a profit motive, we are inviting the worst excesses of the free market to poison our immigration model.

The public has an interest in maintaining a vibrant, ethical and reliable system of immigration. Moreover, these workers deserve to be treated no differently than other vulnerable Canadian workers. As a recent rabble.ca article makes clear, the van crash that killed migrant workers in Ontario and the possible deportation of the others who are hurt and no longer able to work, once again underlines the vulnerabilities of this body of workers. To this end, businesses need to be held responsible for their actions through legislation that protects the rights of these workers in a transparent and accountable way.

These are not lofty goals, but will bring us closer to being a society where no one is unduly exploited and hard-working families are paid a living wage, regardless of whether they are permanent residents.

This article was first posted on Behind the Numbers.

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