Canadians are often at a loss to define and determine the essential nature of the national identity. But this very ambiguity is the source of our special strength. We see ourselves, for good reason, as a nation of nations. We’ve willingly and approvingly become a place where migrants can live and work and become as much a part of the community as anyone else.

But this has been gradually and quietly changing. In 2007, for the first time in Canadian history, temporary resident applications outnumbered permanent.

In that same year, before the recession, there were about 200,000 temporary foreign workers in Canada. In 2011, despite tough economic times, that number swelled to over 300,000. Canadian businesses, enabled by the Harper government, have been happy to import cheap labourers. These numbers may come as a surprise to Canadians, who have seen persistently high unemployment, particularly among youth.

These temporary foreign workers are tied to their employer during their stay, their terms limited by their contracts and by the default legal limit of four years. And only a few of these workers can be nominated by the provinces for permanent residency. The vast majority will have to leave the country at the end of their contracts.

Recently the Harper government announced changes to the program. According to the new policy, foreign workers will be brought into Canada in as few as 10 days, rather than three months, if an employer can convince the government that no one else is suitable for the position. The number of temporary workers, many predict, will only increase.

But those numbers alone do not tell the full story. Temporary foreign workers have been — and with Harper’s 2012 federal budget, will increasingly become — subject to unfair practices. In an unprecedented move, employers will be able to pay 15 percent below the typical wage in the same field in that region. No doubt this change will be good for Canadian businesses, but it will not be good for workers, temporary or not. There will be an incentive to lower wages across the board in order to compete with the cheap labour offered by temporary workers. The government has kicked off a race to the bottom.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty recently told reporters that “[T]here is no bad job, the only bad job is not having a job.” But with new positions increasingly going to temporary workers, businesses no longer have an incentive to invest in Canadian workers and communities. Instead, employers can hire temporary workers — people with less economic freedom, mobility, and independence — at below-market rates. This is unfair to them and undermines Canada’s deepest commitments. We will no longer be a nation built in large part by immigrants who will remain invested in the country. We will be a country with two classes of workers.

Workers who are essential to the Canadian economy should not be barred from permanent residency, nor should employers be allowed to subvert market wages through immigration policy. The new policy advanced by the Harper government amounts to short-term thinking. Rather than investing in the development of workers, we are becoming a country that exploits an underclass of disposable labourers.

This article was originally co-written with David Penner for the Georgia Straight.

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