Labour in solidarity with temporary foreign workers

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Photo: flickr/Tania Liu

Despite the stigma that is often attached to temporary foreign workers, several labour groups are calling for an end to Canada's "revolving door" immigration policy.

Starting this month, tens of thousands of migrant workers are eligible for deportation, after recent changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP).

Implemented in 2011, the "four and four" law stipulates that foreign nationals can only work in Canada for four years at a time. After a temporary foreign worker has reached their four-year limit, they will not be granted another work permit in Canada for the next four years.

"Over the next few weeks and months we are going to see people laid off, we are going to see families being separated, we are going to see folks having to make the difficult choice of either leaving the country or having to remain here without immigration status," explained Migrant Workers Alliance for Change Coordinator Syed Hussan.

Hussan also emphasized that the changes do not apply to all migrant worker categories, but only to low-wage workers in the TFWP and workers in the Live-in Caregiver program, most of whom are racialized workers.

Hussan's organization has been part of a nation-wide campaign against the four-year limit on migrant workers along with some labour groups and unions, including Unifor and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).

The group has four main demands which they say are needed to protect migrant worker in Canada:

  • Scrap the four and four rule so migrant workers can continue to renew their work visas

  • Grant migrant workers in Canada permanent residency

  • Ensure migrant worker access to all social benefits and entitlements, like Canada Pension and Workers' Compensation

  • Enact legislation to grant permanent residency for all migrants upon arrival

The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), which represents over three million workers in Canada, has signed on to endorse these demands, they also say that workers who have reached the four-year limit should not be deported.

"Our position is very clear," said CLC national representative David Onyalo. "The government should stop deportations and should grant migrant workers the ability to apply for permanent residency, which would eventually lead to them becoming Canadian Citizens, and that applies to all migrant workers in this country."

Though the CLC now stands in solidarity with migrant workers, Onyalo said he recognizes that the labour movement would not necessarily have held this position 15 to 20 years ago, and that some unions or labour groups may still not agree with the CLC's position.

"It's still a dividing issue," said Onyalo, "but I think that [the media] should be able to acknowledge when the labour movement or the CLC actually takes such a position, because it's not easy. There are people who are completely opposed to it."

The status of migrant workers within the labour movement has historically been a divisive issue. While international labour solidarity has always been a tenet of worker organizing, strains on the domestic labour market have at times led unions to take more protectionist stances.

"We've been gradually more progressive in terms of the position that we take," Onyalo explained. "If you listened to the debate from the 2014 convention floor we had people saying that a worker is a worker is a worker, and we should not be discriminating against them. The fact that we have a Temporary Foreign Worker Program is not the fault of workers. It has to do with Canadian governments' inability to have a long-term strategy in terms job creation."

Labour's position on this issue is not monolithic. Some labour groups, such as the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), have called for the TFWP to be dramatically scaled back or brought to an end.

"We take this position because Canada doesn't need an exploitative guest worker program. What we need is real immigration," said AFL president Gil McGowan in a press statement.

While Hussan notes that the current immigration system is failing migrant workers, he says that almost all migrant workers groups feel that the TFWP should be reformed and remain in operation because there are virtually no other points of access for low-wage workers coming from outside the country.

"Basically if this program was shut down, poor, working-class people would not be able to come to Canada," said Hussan. "Unless there is some way for poor, racialized people to come here, we don't think we can shut down this program, it doesn't make sense to any migrant worker group because it's mass exclusion. And that's where there's a difference in opinion."

Unifor National Representative and organizer Wally Ewanicke agrees that there are major barriers for low-wage migrant workers in Canada and he believes that unions should do a lot to support migrant workers.

"We at Unifor have been working more with the 'unskilled' workers -- and I hate using that word but that's the word -- because those are the people that are probably most vulnerable and that's where the bulk of the help is needed," said Ewanicke. "When temporary foreign workers come in, they are tied to that employer and the employer can pretty much do as they please."

"Unifor's position has been that the [Temporary Foreign Worker Program] needs to cease," said Ewanicke. "The proper way to fix it would be to develop a much clearer immigration process but, obviously the government isn't going to listen to us. If they are going to continue to do it, then it leads us into the position that we have, which is that [migrant workers] should have a clear path the citizenship."

Unifor has been lobbying the government for more wide-reaching immigration reform, as well as helping individuals on immigration and worker-related issues through their migrant worker hotline.

In unionized workplaces, the union advantage can also extend to migrant workers, says Ewanicke. In some Unifor shops, such as at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, workers hired under the TFWP work alongside unionized employees. And in those cases, all workers receive the same wages and benefits, as determined by their collective agreement. The union has also been able to pressure employers to sponsor temporary foreign workers right away, "not like in non-union workplaces, where the employer actually uses that as a carrot or a stick," said Ewanicke.

"Quite truthfully, if workers had that direct path, it would change everything," said Ewanicke. "The whole Temporary Foreign Worker Program would, in a sense, crumble upon itself because these workers would now have a right to residency." In that case, migrant workers would not be tied to a single employer which, Ewanicke explained "changes the game that the employers currently have an advantage in."


Ella Bedard is rabble's labour intern and an associate editor at GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine. She has written about labour issues for and the Halifax Media Co-op and is the co-producer of the radio documentary The Amelie: Canadian Refugee Policy and the Story of the 1987 Boat People. 

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