The global reach of temporary foreign worker policies

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There used to be another word for temporary foreign workers. They were called immigrants. They did jobs that, we're told, Canadians now don't want to do. That included mining, assembly-line manufacturing, construction and cleaning. They did them with relative verve because they were en route to being Canadians and so were their kids -- especially the kids.

Many of us speak from that experience. They did them happily enough because those jobs didn't totally define their lives. They bought and carefully tended homes, preventing downtowns like Toronto's from becoming U.S.-type slums, at least until the "Canadians" started moving back downtown. Again, I know of what I speak. (They were often mystified when their kids returned to streets they escaped.) They were able to improve their lot, at least modestly, via union membership.

In an especially misanthropic Globe column, Margaret Wente rejects that model because "it amounts to importing poverty." Sorry but that's what built Canada. "We" imported poverty and gave it a chance to mutate. What does she think the poor are? They're human, for starters. They have dreams and motivation -- with a little encouragement. And energy, often far beyond the rest of us. Without it, many would never have survived.

She says, "Canada's immigration policy is the most successful in the world because we select people with a lot of skills and education -- not ditchdiggers and hotel maids." But that's exactly who we brought in: ditchdiggers and hotel maids. Their kids, with the benefits of decent schools, are now teachers, artists, bankers, hockey players. She's ticked about letting Filipina nannies apply for citizenship because they don't "move up the income ladder." Well, uptitle nanny to early childhood educator, improve the pay, include benefits and see what follows. And by the way, who says ditchdiggers and nannies aren't skilled? You try it.

And what's preventing people like nannies from doing better? Temporary foreign workers, that's who. They have no stake in the country and are insecure, so they work for less. If they were immigrants and not TFWs, they wouldn't do that. This policy isn't a law of nature that you can't repeal, or an innate instinct among "true" Canadians. Come to think of it, that's what I meant to write about before I got exasperated by Wente's column.

We tend to parochialize; it's human. And it's fun to watch Bob Rae and Jason Kenney tweet at each other over who's to blame. But this phenomenon is global. Aside from early pockets like Caribbean farm workers in Canada or Turkish "guest workers" in Germany, it took hold with the rise of globalization and free trade about 25 years ago. Businesses could then move operations anywhere to beat wages down: from Canada to the southern U.S., then Mexico, then China. But eventually the locals fight back (30,000 Chinese are now striking against Nike) so aside from moving on to Cambodia, it became profitable to transport whole workforces, who had no citizenship and almost no rights.

There are now huge, unprecedented pools of foreign workers "floating" around the globe. One left a poem on a dorm door in China, writes Guy Standing in The Precariat: "We are all people floating around in the world. We get to meet each other but we never really get to know each other." Think about that. These foreign workers don't go home when they leave Canada. They float somewhere else.

The social and political effects are dire. Among ordinary people: a surge of what looks like racism but is a highly understandable response to policies meant to make them insecure and willing to lower expectations. In politics: success of quasi-racist parties like UKIP in Britain and the National Front in France. We see symptoms here in the anti-Sikh flyers last week in Brampton. They didn't come from isolated individuals; there are organizations rallying around this stuff.

Let me finally rise -- or sink -- to a deeper level of abstraction. Policies like TFW aren't confined to specific places like Canada or particular moments. They're part of extended historical conflicts over power between forces like capital and labour in which most people didn't even know they held membership. Whether being aware of that would make any difference, I couldn't say.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: John Perivolaris/flickr

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