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The Temporary Foreign Worker Program and labour solidarity

Canadian Politics

The context of migration not only makes it easier for employers to exploit TFWs, it also serves to obscure the common core of labour solidarity that should be at the basis of responses to the greater labour discipline that the TFWP enables.

The expansion of the TFWP and its increasing application to low-wage work has occurred alongside other changes to Canadian immigration in a very short time frame. For instance, permanent residency applications received declined by just under 50% between 2008 and 2012 and the total population of permanent residents remained steady. At the same time, the number of TFWs entering Canada per year increased slightly, while their total number grew by over a third. Indeed going back ten years to 2002, the population of temporary foreign workers has tripled. Finally, the rise in the number of TFWs has occurred in large part amongst the “low-skilled” rather than “high-skilled” (the very notions of low and high skill are highly gendered and somewhat arbitrary but that it too large to additionally tackle here). The Low Skill Pilot Program grew twenty-fold over the decade between 2002 and 2012 and the chart below shows the break-down of TFW employer permits by skill type since 2005.

Figure 1. TFWP permits (Labour Market Opinions) granted by skill level of employee. Source: Source: Employment and Social Development Canada TFWP LMO database.

While it is generally the case that the skills of immigrants are being underutilized, new temporary migrants are increasingly being streamlined into low-wage jobs. While these changes in immigration structure have been taking place, the government and the business community have maintained the rhetoric of migration as getting a leg up on life. The stereotype of the hard-working migrant implicitly allows for a greater exploitation of migrant labour. Take these remarks from Dan Kelly of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, as reported by the CBC:

“I can tell you, anecdotally, I’ve had many many emails from small business owners who’ve said that their temporary foreign workers are among the most productive employees…[who will] take every late shift or early morning shift that’s offered to them…They’re not going to take the day off because they have to take their dog to the vet. They’re going to show up to work on time, they’re going to work a full week without disappearing.”

The flip side of this is the stereotype of the lazy Canadian who cannot be bothered to take up certain kinds of work. The truth hiding just behind both stereotypes is the reality of changing economic power relations. The TFPW has created a set of institutionalized rules that affect both the face of immigration and domestic labour market conditions. In short, it is another strategy employers have at their disposal: temporary workers as a permanent solution.

Business platitudes like that from the CFIB efface the experience of migrant workers. In reality, migrant workers face a range of restrictions on everything from where they can work, for whom they can work, what they can do, even to where they can live – the last in the case of live-in caregivers, but not only. These restrictions are structural features of the TFWP that directly contribute to the labour disciplining impacts I wrote about in the previous post and hiding between the lines of the above quote.

Beyond these restrictions, TFWs also face regulatory uncertainty. Some aspects of what remains of the Canadian social safety net are outright unavailable to them. In British Columbia, for example, TFWs are excluded from some social programs, such as social housing or assistance in paying health insurance premiums for low-income people, despite paying taxes that are used to help fund these programs. Other parts of the social safety net, notably EI, are nominally available to them, but difficult to obtain in practice. Fear of losing the chance to work in Canada and of a chance at permanent residency on the part of migrant workers helps maintain this heightened level of precarity in employment relations.

Here, we see the questions of immigration and labour discipline come together most fully. The problem is just as much that TFWs are being used to maintain slack in the labour market and temper worker demands as it is that these workers are seen as expendable. The TFWP creates a class of officially-sanctioned low-wage workers who are also outsiders. This is all the more so the case as an increasing proportion of TFWs come from racialized minorities.

Michal Rozworski is an economist, writer and organizer who currently lives on unceded Coast Salish land in Vancouver, BC. He blogs at Political Eh-conomy, where this article was originally posted.

Figure 2. Country of origin of TFWs, i.e. increasing racialization of the TFWP. Source: Citizenship and Immigration Canada Facts and Figures 2012.

It is easy to be against the TFWP on the basis of an intrusion into the labour market—something to be removed like a splinter or a bug—but harder to see it as fundamental to labour market dynamics that are of concern to all workers, particularly those working for the lowest wages. Knee-jerk reactions can translate into strategies that end up hurting migrant workers further. Migrant workers can easily be made out to be an other that takes away jobs and entrenches shoddy working conditions.

The problem, however, is not the use of migrant labour by employers, but power dynamics; it is not external, but internal to the Canadian labour market. The TFWP is just a tool in the toolbox and there are others ready to take its place in limiting worker demands, especially if workers expend energies fighting each other. The challenge is to see ourselves reflected in migrant workers. Their struggles are in many ways a much sharper version of our own. As such, this requires putting the demands and voices of migrant workers themselves front and centre. Alongside better labour market protections, their demands have often included recognition and normalization. A simple demand is permanent residency for all workers upon entry into Canada.

Normalization turns the logic of neoliberalism on its head. It exposes the lie behind the abstract equality of economic theorizing. This abstract equality translates into a reality of divide and conquer via creating differences like that between migrant and domestic workers. By arguing for immigration reform and labour protections at the same time, that is organizing around the broadest possible worker solidarity, we can work towards substantial equality and the common goal of winning economic power.


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