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The making of a global disposable workforce

Documenting the rise of Canada’s “rent-a-worker” program


Sunshine Farms worker Aristeo Perez Garcia (left) picks cucumbers under the afternoon sun, Wednesday, July 27, 2016. Photo by Tara Walton.

A sea of change is underway in Canada as the country shifts away from traditional immigration towards a “rent a worker” policy all too prevalent around the globe. And it is taking place without public debate or official announcements.

How did this happen and what is being done by the people most affected? We are asking this question after recently attending the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) in Mexico and having worked on projects surrounding Canadian and International labour laws and immigration issues on over a half-dozen Canadian productions and a documentary to be completed in the fall.

November 2010, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico: at a majestic conference centre in this tourist mecca on Mexico’s Pacific coast, the future of one seventh of the world’s population, the migrant workers, is being discussed at the government-supported GFMD. While not formally part of the UN process, this Forum is aimed at providing a venue for labour-receiving and labour-sending countries to trade strategies around instituting temporary labour migration programs.

Meanwhile, hundreds of migrant workers, their families and supporters, who have travelled two days by bus from another very important but less ostentatious forum on migration in Mexico City, the International Assembly of Migrants and Refugees (IAMR), are trying to have their voices heard by the delegates to the GFMD. Over 500 protesters rallied outside the walls but their cries for justice fell unheard over the blockade of riot police and the clink of wine glasses from the opening speeches of the 700 delegates from 131 countries.

In many ways, these two conferences symbolize two sides of a crucial debate around the largest mobility of workers ever seen, a “legal trade” of a global disposable workforce of a billion migrants, of which approximately one quarter migrate internationally and three quarters internally.

It’s important to stress the term “legal trade,” because the purported intention of the officials is to regulate the import and export of workers through international and bilateral agreements and codes of conduct. Indeed, the GFMD stresses the need to monitor and harmonize the flow even more to avoid “irregular migration,” trafficking in people and sexual exploitation. Their regulation includes militarizing borders and toughening up controls on migrants, treating them all as suspects of illegal entry. Meanwhile, it is the private sector, employers, agencies and other intermediaries that are in charge of matching supply and demand. Inevitably, there is a conflict of interest between the profit motive and the basic human rights and treatment of the traded workers.

Of course, as they focus on managing the flow of migrants, officials are not questioning why millions of workers are obliged to leave their homeland to find a job, and what can be done about that.

Global Forum on Migration and Development

It is rather fitting that the fourth GFMD took place in Mexico, one of the major labour-exporting and trans-migratory countries in the world. The Mexico-US border is the most frequently crossed international border in the world with 350 million passages per year, including an estimated 500,000 to one million “illegal” passages; several hundred migrants are killed every year trying to cross the border.

The central theme in Puerto Vallarta was “Partnerships for Migration and Development: Shared Prosperity–Shared Responsibility.” The GFMD believes that the massive migration of workers, if it is managed in partnerships–among governments, civil society organizations, public and private sectors along with migrants–will lead to “development” and “reduction of poverty and inequality.”

The perspective of the migrants themselves was the framework for the other conference, the IAMR that took place in Mexico City just before the government- backed conference. As the third such gathering, and the first in the Americas, fifteen grassroots organizations from Mexico, Central and South America, the US, Canada, Europe and Asia were represented.

For years the Philippines has been held up as a model in these fora; it is the world’s number one labour exporter per capita, sending out over 3000 workers every day to work abroad. The money these workers send back home to their families–US $16.4 billion in 2008, $17.4 billion in 2009–is the largest source of income in the country, and has been growing despite serious global economic downturns.

But as to whether this is leading to development of the country is another matter. The number of migrant workers being shipped out has grown steadily for over three decades, yet generation after generation of workers still have no means of decent livelihood at home and are obliged to seek work abroad.

The IAMR was organized to challenge the view that migration will lead to development for the countries of the global South. Instead, delegates to this forum revealed that social dislocation, mistreatment and “slave-like” conditions are too often the norm for the world’s migrant workers; they also heard how the benefits of this mobile and relatively cheap labour force they were part of accrued mostly to the countries of the North and their huge monopolies.

“There is no consideration for the root causes of migration or the difficult and often abusive conditions facing migrants,” said Julia Camagong, coordinator of the international secretariat of the IAMR.

Just weeks before the conference got underway, 72 migrant workers were slaughtered in Tamaulipas, in northeast Mexico. The 58 men and 14 women were found piled in a room, like “discarded contraband,” wrote the New York Times. The migrants in transit through Mexico from Central and South America were on their way to the United States, but were sequestered by drug smugglers. They apparently refused to pay extortion fees and were executed.

Camilo Pérez Bustillo, professor of law and one of the speakers at the IAMR, said the massacre of the 72 migrant workers was not an isolated case. “Mexico is a vast cemetery of some 70,000 dead and assassinated migrants and total impunity reigns,” the horrific “hidden” social and human cost of migration, Bustillo said.

Canada’s rent-a-worker policy

Canadian officials were present in Puerto Vallarta, but reluctant to meet with us to discuss Canada’s positions, despite several requests. Perhaps this has something to do with Canada’s shift to a “temporary foreign worker” program (TFWP) to meet labour market needs.

Canada, quite rightly, is known as a land of immigrants. In 2006, approximately 20 percent of the population in Canada was foreign-born, a higher proportion than any other country except Australia. Today Canada’s labour force is shrinking and the birth rate not keeping up with labour market needs. About two-thirds of Canada’s population growth comes from net international migration.

In 2008, for the first time in recent history, the number of temporary workers coming to Canada surpassed the number of permanent residents and immigrants to the country. They are no longer limited to seasonal agricultural workers and live-in caregivers, but work in fast food, commercial laundries, hotels, construction, food-packing plants, slaughterhouses, warehouses and other industries.

Yet how we bring people into Canada to meet labour market needs will shape the evolving nature of Canada itself. Armine Yalnizyan, a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, wrote in the Globe and Mail, “These workers are brought into Canada as essentially the guests of the employer…. Theirs is rarely a path to permanent residency.”

With Canada’s immigration system becoming more elitist over the years, making it virtually impossible for an ordinary worker to immigrate here, more workers are being recruited through the temporary work program. While this program essentially downloads responsibility to the private sector and the provinces, it adds cumbersome layers of administration involving several government departments federally and provincially, and recruitment agencies have stepped forward, offering to arrange it all… for a price.

Recently in Vancouver, a $10 million lawsuit was filed against Denny’s Corporation on behalf of over 50 foreign workers brought to Canada from the Philippines. The workers say that they were charged upwards of $6,000 each for the privilege to work at this fast food restaurant chain as well as expected to pay the cost of their transportation to and from the Philippines. On top of this they were not given the promised 40 hours of paid work each week and when they were required to work overtime, they were not paid the legally required higher rate. When some of the workers raised questions about these matters, they were threatened with job loss and deportation.

Another case among the growing number now reaching the headlines, are three temporary foreign workers at a gas station in Thompson, Manitoba, who are facing deportation. After their first employer in Alberta laid them off before the end of their two-year contract, they found another job pumping gas in Thompson, where the employer said he would complete the necessary paperwork to allow him to hire temporary foreign workers. (Employers are required to obtain a Labour Market Opinion proving that Canadian workers are not available to fill the jobs.) After months on the job, the three were arrested and taken to prison by Canadian Border Services because the employer failed to do the paperwork required.

Capitalism: a long history of labour migration

Labour mobility is very much at the core of capitalist industrialization with continuing internal migration from countryside to city and from one region to another. Internationally, the imperialist empires industrialized and settled large areas of the world on the backs of migrant labour, most notably through the slave trade that allowed a huge captive workforce to be transported from Africa to the US, Brazil and other parts of the Americas (including Canada).

According to Sonny Africa, director of research at the Philippine economic think-tank, IBON, “One of the main thrusts of globalization since the 1980s has been to expand the global stock of cheap labour.” This has been achieved in two ways. First, the labour force for capitalist exploitation has been effectively doubled by the integration of China (800 million workers), the former Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe as well as by the increased integration of other Asian countries in global production processes.

“Second, migration enables elite global economic interests to simply import increasing numbers of willing low-skilled workers, skilled workers and professionals.”

Sonny Africa maintains that migrant supplying countries like the Philippines “lose when their skilled workforce is depleted by the siphoning off of their best and brightest…. Migrant-sending countries are in effect reduced to being mere breeding-grounds for cheap labour that eventually work in overseas economies.”

Indeed, countries of the South are now competing with each other to supply labour to receiving countries. Amy Sim, Professor of Sociology at the University of Hong Kong who specializes in Globalization and Migration, said, “the Philippine government targeted to send abroad two million overseas workers in 2009 alone. Indonesia had a one million per year target. And it is seen as an indicator of success when they are able to meet those targets. But it is in fact an indicator of failure, the failure of the state to support its citizens and to generate sufficient jobs for them at home.”

Migrante International (MI), a grassroots organization of migrants from the Philippines, takes a dual approach to its work with migrant workers. “On one hand, we defend the rights and welfare of our Filipino migrant brothers and sisters,” said Marco Luciano, a spokesperson for Migrante Canada, the Canadian chapter of MI.

“On the other hand, we also see ourselves as part of the struggle to change the situation in the Philippines, so that forced migration will no longer be a dominant feature in our society. The key is genuine land reform, national industrialization and development for and by the people that creates real jobs and true democracy at home. Only then can migration be a choice, rather than the only way to a decent life for working Filipinos.”

Do most Canadians want a two-tiered society, one made up of citizens with full rights and another underclass of temporary ‘rent-a-workers’ who do not enjoy even basic rights? All of this while Canadian society benefits from their labour and indeed from their payments into a social service system that they will never benefit from? Unions, community organizations, churches and other groups are answering a resounding “No!” and have taken up the struggle for their rights.

Malcolm Guy and Marie Boti are documentary filmmakers and founders of Montreal-based Productions Multi-Monde.

This article appeared in the May/June 2011 issue of Canadian Dimension (Precarious labour: a special issue).


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