Photo: flickr/vtgard

The mainstream media keeps asking who is to blame for the mess of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP), and what it means for Canadian jobs, insisting that unemployment is “stubbornly high.” The discourse of competition over scarce jobs in Canada is misleading, obscuring the real problem and proactive solutions.

Such debates assume there is such thing as a ‘Canadian job.’ The Prime Minster tweeted, “We’re taking steps to ensure that the TFWP is not used to facilitate the outsourcing of Canadian jobs.” Countless media reports bemoan that ‘Canadian jobs’ are going to non-Canadians.

Yet, the jobs TFWP are filling do not come with the same rights that Canadian workers enjoy. TFWP visas for low wage jobs are tied to a specific employer and location, meaning TFWs can’t leave one job for another if there’s a problem. In many cases they’re required to live in accommodation provided by their employer — so if they lose their job they also lose their home.

Caregivers and agricultural workers, who make up the majority of TFWs, are not allowed to unionize. Instead, in cases of exploitation, they must submit individual grievances. As is well documented, when TFWs do complain, they risk unemployment, homelessness and deportation. One recruitment company emailed businesses with strategies to prevent TFWs from becoming ‘Canadianized.’ In others words, seeking Canadian labor standards.

Helena Sanchez, from the Temporary Foreign Workers Association of Quebec, notes, “We are paying taxes as Canadian citizens, but are not treated as citizens. We do not have the same rights as Canadians.” 

As opposed to being ‘Canadian jobs,’ the jobs TFWs fill are precarious positions that happen to be in Canada because of a corporate and policy environment that puts profits above rights. Human rights lawyer, Fay Faraday, explains, “It’s employers who are choosing to make work precarious for all workers that’s the problem, regardless of their status. These are choices that are being driven by employers and there is government policy in place that allows these choices to be made.” 

Instead of addressing the lack of worker rights, the idea of ‘Canadian jobs’ pits Canadian workers against foreign workers promoting racism and xenophobia. One website maps employers as ‘Good Guys’ who employ Canadians, and ‘bad guys’ who employ TFWs, such dichotomies obscure the reality that it is exploitative practices, not TFWP, that are the problem. 

The temporary foreign worker controversy has spurred concern over unemployment in Canada, with particular arguments that youth are losing out. According to Statistics Canada, unemployment is 6.9 per cent — and has declined over the last five years. Compared to other developed countries this isn’t so bad.

In many European countries unemployment is higher: in Belgium it is 8.8 per cent, in France it is 10.5 per cent, and in Sweden it is 8.1 per cent. According to the OECD, youth unemployment is substantially higher in comparable countries. In the U.S. it is 17 per cent, and in the UK it is 20 per cent, where as in Canada it is 14 per cent. 

Many TFWs come from countries where unemployment is more than double that of Canada. Desperate for work, they often pay, on average, $4,000 to $10,000 in recruitment fees in order to be placed in minimum wage jobs. Because these fees can equal two or three years of salary in their home countries, workers often take out loans and so arrive already in debt.

While the fact that the situation is worse elsewhere, and for others, doesn’t mean unemployment isn’t hard for Canadians, global comparisons put it in perspective — and a global view is required when considering economic migration.

As Rick Salutin points out, the movement of precarious workers is tied to the history of globalization. As corporations move around the world sourcing cheap labor workers follow. In this globalized economy there are no longer ‘Canadian jobs,’ but only jobs in Canada. 

There is a further contradiction between TFW and permanent jobs in Canada. As Faraday notes, “The work being done is not temporary. And creating a pool of workers in Canada who are temporary, with no ability accesses their rights, and no ability to participate in the democratic system that effects their rights cannot be just.” The solution, advocate by Faraday, Sanchez and groups such as the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, is to allow TFW opportunities to work in Canada permanently with equal rights to other workers. 

Sanchez says she hopes that instead of seeing TFW as competition, Canadian workers will stand with TFW and demand better conditions for all. “If Canadians protect TFW rights, they are also protecting their rights,” she says, pointing out that if employers have to offer the same working conditions, then competition for jobs also becomes impartial.


Julia Smith is a community/international development and research consultant, specializing in issues related to human rights. She is currently completing her PhD in Peace Studies at the University of Bradford and is based in Vancouver. @juliaheather

Photo: flickr/vtgard