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Three reasons why Ottawa's Temporary Foreign Workers Program 'reforms' likely mean little

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Jason kenney

Canadians are within their rights to be highly skeptical of the long list of changes to the Harper Government's Temporary Foreign Workers Program announced yesterday by Employment Minister Jason Kenney.

Indeed, we would be nuts to be anything but skeptical about this effort by the government to "change the channel" on what really is a national scandal.

First, there has simply never been any reason for a temporary worker recruitment program in Canada except as an illegitimate mechanism to suppress wages and weaken the bargaining position of Canadian workers.

I don't think anyone has missed it that -- at least until Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his reformed Reform Party gang got their hooks into a majority government -- Canada was a desirable destination for working people and their families from every part of the world. People quite literally risk their lives to come here.

Indeed, judging from what Kenney and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander have to say much of the time, we must be ever vigilant to ensure our coastlines and borders are not besieged by vast armies of illegal immigrants, queue jumpers every one!

This indisputable fact makes it perfectly obvious that our immigration program and our domestic employers should be up to the task of finding sufficient workers to do the work that needs to get done in Canada. All they need to do is offer competitive pay to attract people in needed occupations and fast track the process for those occupations to get workers here in a timely fashion.

When such workers get here, as in the past, employers would have to treat them the same consideration as other Canadian employees. So if there are gaps in the market, we have always had a way to fill them that is fair to "foreign" workers -- who get to quickly become Canadian workers -- and to the Canadian workers who were already here.

The key, of course, to understanding why the program was ever set up is contained in the thoughts "competitive pay" and "the same consideration." The goal of the program, was, is and ever shall be to provide cheap and easy-to-exploit workers, and to push down the costs of employing Canadian workers who are already here.

It's just that it's become a political problem for the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and thus will have to be moved to the back burner for a spell.

Nothing in the 14 points noted in the Globe and Mail's report of Kenney's announcement changes this fundamental reality, even if some of the changes are, on their face, improvements from the way things were done before.

Second, the program is full of caveats designed to help it continue to fulfill its original principal purpose -- wage suppression.

Consider this point from the Globe and Mail's story yesterday: "There will be no access to the program for employers in the accommodation, food services and retail trade sectors -- as well as those who hire cleaners, construction helpers, landscapers and security guards -- if they operate in areas of high unemployment, which the government defines as being above 6 per cent." (Emphasis added.)

In other words, the restriction won't apply here in Alberta where unemployment lately has been well under 5 per cent, even though in many communities our kids and older people can't find unskilled summer or part-time work because of competition from foreign workers.

Yes, employers have lots to say about this, but rather than deny it, they habitually smear Canadian workers, especially young ones, as lazy and shiftless -- which around here usually means they insist on their rights and demand fair market-based pay for their work. This is the real problem.

Here in my community, the Edmonton-area suburb of St. Albert, the local Chamber of Commerce within minutes of the announcement exultantly let its members know that "the Government of Canada is ending the moratorium that was placed on the food services sector effective immediately."

So the TFW program will continue as a wage suppression mechanism here in Alberta, where the unemployment rate is lower and therefore unskilled workers would have more power if the market was allowed to function without interference to tilt the proverbial field even further in the interests of employers.

Here's another point from the Globe story to ponder: "Farm workers who enter Canada under the On-Farm Primary Agriculture program are exempt from the cap, the reduced timelines and the higher fees."

In other words, there will no additional bargaining power for agricultural workers in Alberta just because the market demands it. Alberta's unconstitutional prohibition on union representation for agricultural workers also remains in place.

Other changes, in particularly the as-yet undefined shorter time period in which TFWs may remain in Canada, will make foreign workers more vulnerable and easier to exploit. And those big fines for employers who break the rules? Don't expect a fine of $100,000 ever to be asked for, let alone levied.

Employers, who have benefitted enormously both directly from the TFW Program and its interference in the labour market by helping employers push down wages all across Canada, will complain mightily, as they have been doing for weeks.

But can there be any doubt that they are being privately reassured by the government that if it gets a renewed majority, this additional "red tape" will soon be snipped away and the program will soon be restored to its original glory?

I'm sorry that I have to respectfully disagree with my friends in the labour movement who cheered Kenney's announcement yesterday as a victory of sorts. It's not much of one, and if the Harper Government comes back, so will the original TFW Program.

Third, we know this government already lies about this policy.

For evidence, we have the useful work of the Alberta Federation of Labour, whose researchers discovered the federal government uses data it had to know was misleading to justify the TFW Program.

How did the government know more TFWs were needed? It turns out it asked groups like the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, and it shouldn't surprise anyone that the CFIB responded with a resounding yes. After all, that's exactly what they were trying all along to persuade the government to do.

The real problem that employers of low-skill workers such as the fast-food industry face here in Alberta is that they don't want to pay a living wage. And they don't want to recognize that workers have rights. The solution is pretty obvious, and it's not TFWs.

Thanks to this program, hourly wages for retail workers and grocery clerks in high-cost Fort McMurray are falling! Meanwhile, legitimate studies -- not the kind of bogus justification cobbled together by the Harper Government with the help of the CFIB -- find no evidence there’s a shortage of low-skilled workers, even here in Alberta.

Now the Harper Government, which fudged the need for the program, says it's going bring in a "more comprehensive and rigorous" process to ensure the program operates properly.

Can anyone seriously be confident this will change anything, or even happen? Please!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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