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Four reasons why shutting down TFWP is no solution to migrant worker abuse

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(Blog post by the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change)

There has been massive media attention on the Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP) in the last few weeks. Mainstream and social media is full of analysis and solutions. Some critics and commentators insist that the only appropriate way forward is shutting down the low-skilled temporary foreign worker program. They are wrong.

With increased workplace uncertainty, as permanent jobs disappear and the public sector shrinks, many are looking around for culprits to blame. Though migrant workers and the TFWP seems like an easy target, it isn't.

It's important to analyze the key arguments being made about the TFWP.

1. Migrant workers are pushing Canadians out of jobs and taking jobs from unemployed Canadians

News outlets and commentators have reported how the total numbers of migrant workers entering the country make up one quarter (some say three quarters) of new jobs created in Canada, thus suggesting that migrant workers are taking jobs from young workers. The news media is full of a few cases where migrant workers are replacing citizen workers. This is missing the forest for the trees.

There were between 76,711 - 230,379 low-skilled migrant workers in Canada at the end of 2012 -- making them 0.0042 per cent -- 0.013 per cent of the labour force (the large discrepancy between the figures is because 153,668 workers' occupational classification is not reported on by Immigration Canada). Of these about 35,000 worked in the agriculture sector, while another 19,830 were live-in caregivers.

There are officially 1.35 million unemployed Canadians in the country (real unemployment is likely twice as high). Even if all migrant workers were excluded there would be at least 1.1 million unemployed Canadian citizens left.

Communities with the highest levels of unemployment -- like Nunvaut -- have relatively few migrant workers. And regions with the lowest rate of unemployment -- that is Alberta -- has the highest number of migrant workers coming in. There is no generalized replacement of citizen workers by migrant workers.

Add to that it's well-known that migrant workers are often replacing other migrant workers -- like on southwestern Ontario farms where migrant workers have been coming since the mid-1960s.

Secondly, migrant workers are often coming into jobs that were previously also occupied by new immigrants -- these are the low-paying jobs in gas stations, retail and manufacturing that newcomers work in to get a leg-up. It's the same demographic of people -- racialized, young and middle-aged newcomers -- who are working these jobs. Except now, they will be deported after a few years rather than build a life here. Immigrants have always formed a critical part of Canada's workforce -- only now they are here temporarily.

There is absolutely no evidence that says that shutting out migrant workers would mean that employers would hire young Canadian citizens. That's because there is a major disconnect between labour, education and training policy in the country. What is needed is government support for skills training, as well as income security -- not migrant worker exclusion.

2. Employers and corporations are using migrant workers to keep wages low

The only reason migrant workers can be paid less and exploited more is because of two-tiered federal and provincial laws and legal limitations on collective organizing. In Ontario, for example, provincial law excludes many migrant workers from minimum wage, occupational health and safety guarantees and even the landlord-tenancy act protections based on their occupational classifications.

Shutting down the TFWP would not mean that the employers would immediately raise wages for Canadian workers. Lobbyists for fast food restaurants like McDonalds, for example, have been advocating against minimum wage increases in Ontario. They might choose to move jobs to other regions in the world, to advocate for more government subsidies and tax cuts, to pass down increased costs to consumers or do all of the above.

Many argue that migrant workers cause a downward pressure on wages and work conditions; therefore, uplifting and empowering them is the only way to improve conditions for all.

3. Migrant workers are less likely to stand up against abuse

Migrant workers are less likely to stand up to abuse because they have more to lose when speaking out. The real culprit here is the law that ties migrant workers to an employer, and gives employers immense power to deport people at whim. The simple solution to that then is full immigration status on landing, which would remove the coercive power employers and recruiters hold. It's also important to note that despite these limitations, migrant workers have organized, including mass rallies, speaking out against recruitment fees fighting back against employer abuse and more.

At a time when all the provinces are cutting resources from labour departments responsible for keeping corporations in check, abuse already encompasses citizen workers. It's not about abolishing the TFWP, it's about ensuring real labour protections for all.

4. Corporations are breaking the law by hiring temporary foreign workers

Many have said that the temporary foreign worker program is being used illegally. That the TFWP is supposed to be a short-term labour shortage fix, and employers are making it otherwise. This is a profound misunderstanding of Canadian and global immigration policy.

Since 1978, more people have entered Canada on a temporary basis then on a permanent basis. This is not a new story, and there is no simple solution -- like shutting down the TFWP.

Since Harper came in to power in 2006, temporariness has been entrenched throughout the immigration system. It's not just that there are more temporary migrant workers, now parents, grandparents and spouses also come in temporarily. Refugees and permanent residents face many different ways where their status can be revoked -- making them also temporary.

This is the new global face of immigration with most "countries" expanding their guestworker programs, a regime that is being pushed at the United Nations level.

The entire immigration system -- not just the temporary foreign worker program -- is determined by corporate interests. The new expression of interest system is controlled by employers. Referred to as an "online dating" system, employers cherry pick from immigrant applicants to fast-track who can come here permanently. Only workers from 24 occupations can apply.

Corporations aren't breaking the intent of the law. Temporary immigration is the law of Canada and the global norm. The solution is not to slam the door shut on migrant workers. Or even, as some progressives insist, to simply expand the permanent immigration system. That would just mean more corporate-driven immigration. Poor and racialized workers (so-called "low-skilled workers") that make up the TFWP, must be able come to Canada freely with full immigration status on landing, including the ability to reunite with their families. We need to openly contest the factors that force people to move, and create systems of migration that are people, not corporate-driven. We need status for undocumented migrants now.

What lies beneath

Unlike stories of the deaths of migrant workers like Ned Pearthealth care denialracist policing or mass exploitation like in the Presteve Case, it seems to be that its only stories pitting migrants against "Canadians" that get national attention.

The use of incorrect statistics and skewed economic arguments to demand the exclusion of temporary foreign workers by people all along the political spectrum hearkens to a lengthy history of exclusion of immigrants from Canada. While in the past racist headlines read "Immigrants are taking Canadian jobs," now they insist "Foreign workers are taking Canadian jobs." What's the difference?

There is more afoot here, it's xenophobia and it must be challenged. It is important that we do not repeat the injustices of the past. Full immigration status for all, full rights for all workers is the only way forward. Resist attempts to divide unemployed, migrant and poor people.

Update, Apr 30, 2014: Following the initial publication of this blog post, Jason Kenney, Minister for Employment imposed a ban on migrant workers in the food sector. The Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC) opposes moratoriums on the TFWP and calls for just transition to full immigration status. Read their statement here, you can see Syed Hussan on CTV's Power and Politics explaining MWAC's point of view here

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