Migrants in Atlantic Canada: How to survive in a remittance economy

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There was a lot of ire and eye-rolling on March 7 when New Brunswick Conservative MP John Williamson, in response to a question about labour shortages in meat-packing and processing, claimed: "it makes no sense to pay whities to stay home while we bring in brown people to work in these jobs."

In one fell swoop, Williamson summed up the racialized caricature the Conservative government wants you to believe about Atlantic Canada's workforce: that lazy white locals are living high on the dole (or as we say here, pogey) while transnational migrants, who are hardworking but not invested locally, take the jobs they should be doing.

This caricature is the ideological backbone of the region's two-tiered racialized remittance economy. 

What to do with a seasonal economy? 

Williamson's "whitie" has a long history in Atlantic Canada.

Since the post-war period, the region's 'unviable' seasonal economies have been poked and prodded by federal policy-makers in at attempt to modernize local industries and eradicate the 'problem' of seasonal unemployment.

Historically, many seasonal workers travelled within and outside the region, following ebb and flow of demand for manual labour. But with mechanization of agriculture, forestry, and other natural resource industries, these patterns of work dried up and unemployment benefits assumed a critical role in the region's economy. The hard-won 1950's era extension of unemployment insurance eligibility to seasonal workers established a basic and reliable level of material security for workers and their families; it also drew national scorn.

Today we are well acquainted with the stereotype of the lazy, government-dependent Maritimer. We can add Williamson's comment to a long list including Stephen Harper commenting that "there is a dependence in the region that breeds a culture of defeatism" and Margaret Wente reflecting that EI "traps people and discourages them from moving to areas where their futures (and their kids' futures) might be better."

While it's true -- given the region's unemployment and poverty rates -- that the future feels grim for many on the east coast, this isn't a geographical or, for that matter, a seasonal problem. Saying so is just a sneaky way of blaming poverty on nature.

The truth is, livelihoods in the region have been undercut by the mismanagement and consolidation of local primary industries, entrenched corporate control [cough, Irvings], lack of meaningful employment strategies, and neoliberal policy-making that has converted Canada's employment insurance program from primarily a benefit for unemployed workers into a labour market management tool. The decimation of the EI program over the past several years -- nudged along by extractive industries in western Canada -- was done with an eye to the cheap and flexible labour available in regions like the Maritimes.

Margaret Wente is getting her way. Seasonal workers who have the resources have been responding to these pressures in the labour market by seeking long-distance shift-work, largely in the Alberta oil patch.  

A seasonal workforce that can't go west

In 2002 the pilot program that became the low-skill stream of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) was created to allow access to supremely flexible, made-to-order workers across all industries. In the Maritimes, as local workers have left seasonal, low-income industries (in part, many speculate, because of the increasing difficulty of accessing unemployment insurance), seasonal employers have increasingly turned to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to fulfill their labour needs.

In PEI, which has the highest growth rate of temporary foreign workers in Atlantic Canada, fish processing plants outstrip even agriculture as employers of transnational migrant workers. The workers are primarily women from China, Thailand, and the Philippines, all of whom leave their families behind to work processing lobster for eight months each year. Although some transnational migrant workers are ferried to and from Canada with the seasons by international labour companies -- using practices that would violate human rights laws if Canadians were subjected to them -- others wait out the winter months in rural PEI to begin work again in the spring.

In these isolated communities the tired, racist and government-sanctioned refrain "foreigners are taking our jobs" is heard less than one might expect. Locals often observe that if it weren't for the foreign workers, the local fish plant would close, and there would be no jobs for anyone. In the workplace, migrant workers take on the harshest parts of the job: longer hours and the more difficult or grisly work that local workers would rather avoid.

Local workers know that the seafood processing industry can be exploitative, and many plants have earned reputations over the years for exploiting workers and scamming them on payday. The low wages, poor conditions, and increasingly unreliable access to EI in the off season have driven local workers to avoid fish plant work when possible -- often leading to outward migration for those with any degree of flexibility. Anyone who's anyone goes west, people say.

Williamson seemed confused about the reaction he drew, but his cartoonish comments made one thing clear: From PEI to Alberta to the Philippines, it's a vicious race to the bottom.


Josie Baker is a queer feminist community educator whose work includes migrant worker rights, reproductive justice, and food sovereignty in Prince Edward Island. She is a member of Cooper Institute.

Katie Mazer is working on a dissertation about labour migration between Canada's East Coast and extractive industries in Western Canada. She is the rabble.ca Atlantic Beat Editor and a member of the PEI Coalition for Fair EI.

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