Alfredo Barahona of KAIROS: 'Welcoming the stranger.'

The government’s plans for Canadian workers, for Employment Insurance (EI) and for the tens of thousands of migrant workers who come here annually are murky and unclear.

Commenting on changes in EI announced, but not specified, in the Budget Omnibus Bill the Minister of Finance says “any job is a good job.”

The Minister of Human Resources has a somewhat different story. She says that unemployed Canadians will only be required to take jobs for which they are qualified and in their own regions.

The Minister of Finance goes to Committee and, with a contemptuous pout, tells his colleagues that we’ll all know what the EI rules are when the regulations are published. That will only be after Parliament passes the Budget Bill.

Move if you want to work?

And then, there is the government-commissioned study that seeks to evaluate how willing unemployed Canadians are to move to a different region for a job.

Despite that study, encouraging unemployed Canadians to move is not, the Human Resources Minister would have us believe, her Government’s policy.

In fact, the Minister’s spokesperson claims Human Resources Department officials conducted the study without the Minster’s knowledge.

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley and her people insist that the coming changes to EI will only “better connect people to local job opportunities.”

We’ll see.

Accountants as fruit pickers?

While we wait for the shoe to drop on EI, some employers are deeply worried about the idea of forcing unemployed workers to take just any old job. Among them, are farmers who employ seasonal migrant workers.

Broccoli farmer Ken Forth is Board Chair of Foreign Agricultural Resources Management Services, the private sector agency that “facilitates and coordinates the processing of requests for foreign seasonal agricultural workers.” He makes the case that Canadian workers “mostly want full time jobs,” while farmers mostly need just-in-time, seasonal help.

Forth and his fellow Canadian farmers obviously don’t relish the idea of teaching unemployed accountants or physicists how to pick strawberries or bale hay.

Still, there is yet another twist in this story of jobs, EI and migrant workers.

This government is nothing if not consistently inconsistent (although there may be method to its apparent mad incoherence).

Making it easier to import temporary workers

You would think a government that wanted to get people off EI and into any sort of work (notwithstanding the farmers’ concerns) would not be making it easier and cheaper for employers to use temporary foreign workers.

But that is exactly what this government is doing.

Without fanfare, the Government announced, in April, that employers could now pay foreign workers up to 15 per cent below the Canadian average wage for a job in a specific region.

That almost unnoticed announcement was part of a package of changes to the temporary foreign worker program, most of them designed to give more “flexibility” to employers who say they are having trouble finding the right people with the right skills in Canada.

The changes include fast tracking employer applications for some categories of migrant workers from the current 12 weeks to just 10 days. The purpose is to allow employers to bring in more just-in-time, temporary help to keep their businesses rolling along.

Lower paid migrants + new EI rules = lower wages for all?

People in the labour movement and others who work with foreign workers are worried about this trend to more migrant workers.

They point out that Canada now brings in foreign temporary workers at a rate of something like 190,000 per year. Currently there are estimated to be about 300,000 temporary foreign workers in Canada.

The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and a group of NGOs are calling on the Government to roll back the up to 15 per cent below Canadian wage provisions. They worry that this cut in pay for migrant workers will exert downward pressure on all wages.

In fact, if you put the as-yet-unknown changes to EI together with the new migrant labour provisions it looks almost like a surefire recipe for depressing wages in Canada – which may be the over-arching purpose of both policies.

A modern form of indentured servitude

Labour and the NGOs have other problems with the thrust of migrant and temporary worker policy.

Hassan Yussuff, Secretary-Treasurer of the CLC, points out that the increased emphasis on temporary foreign workers “makes no bloody sense” economically.

Employers put money into training people then those people have to leave, Yussuff explains. Employers then have to start at zero, again. It is a costly and inefficient way to do business.

Alfredo Barahona, coordinator of the church-based organization KAIROS’ Migrant and Indigenous Rights Program, makes his plea in favour of the theological principle of “welcoming the stranger.”

“The temporary worker program separates families.” Barahona says, “Instead, Canada should be nation-building by bringing in workers as permanent residents.”

Naveen Mehta, General Counsel and Director of Human Rights for the United Food and Commercial Workers, goes even further.

“The temporary foreign worker program is brutally unfair,” Mehta argues, “It is a form of modern day indentured servitude.”

Get injured and it’s your own fault

The CLC and the NGOs point to the fact that temporary foreign workers have virtually no job security.

If they complain about their work or conditions, or try to refuse work that might be dangerous, they can find themselves on a bus or an airplane heading for Mexico or the Caribbean or the Philippines.

To illustrate the real life situation of many migrant workers the CLC has shared the story, originally reported in the Toronto Star, of a Mexican apple picker who had a tractor run over her legs.

While the worker was in hospital a Mexican diplomat and her employer both tried to coerce the Mexican woman into signing a document in which she would take full responsibility for the accident.

Only the intervention of the support group Justice for migrant Workers stopped this.

In the end, the injured Mexican worker required the help of the police to recover her belongings from the private property of the farmer.

When they got to the farm, the severely injured worker and her police escort found her belongings stuffed in a plastic bag and tossed near a ditch.

One of the policemen’s reported comment on all this was: “Apples will never taste the same again.”

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...