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The Canadian Government is Using Temporary Foreign Workers to Keep Wages Low

In 2012, the Conservative government introduced legislation that allowed employers to pay foreign workers 15% less than their Canadian counterparts, paving the way for their full-scale exploitation.
January 9, 2014, 4:32pm

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In 2012, the Conservative government introduced legislation that allowed employers to pay foreign workers 15% less than their Canadian counterparts. These rules applied explicitly to workers who came to Canada as a part of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), here to work on a short term basis with no path to permanent residency or citizenship.This legislation was remarkable in that it skipped the usual left-wing arguments for immigration and multiculturalism as a humane form of nation-building and jumped immediately into the right-wing scenario of immigrants arriving in Canada to work for less money than their domestic counterparts. Only in Canada, where it's commonly believed that immigration is necessary for economic sustainability, could a right-wing government implement an immigration policy that plays directly into the fears of reactionary conservative paranoia.

Even a cursory glance at statistics on the predatory employment policies migrant workers face are alarming: According to a Citizen and Immigration study conducted by the government in 2011, 22 percent of temporary foreign workers were paid less than minimum wage, 25 percent did not receive pay information that showed a record of deductions or hours worked, and 39 percent of workers who worked overtime hours never received overtime pay. Another 32 percent received overtime pay "rarely" or "sometimes."

Officially, the TFWP is meant to fill holes in Canada's labour market, providing workers for industries in which Canadians themselves were unwilling to work. In every case, the employer of a foreign worker must provide evidence that there were no Canadian workers available for a given position by requesting a Labour Market Opinion from the government. For a brief time the government actually gave employers a monetary incentive to bypass Canadians and hire cheaply from the international labour market, so it's hard to believe that any business involved in the program was actually encouraged to try to find Canadian job candidates. In order to further understand this policy and the reasons behind it, I talked to Jeffrey Reitz, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto who has written extensively on Canadian Immigration policy: "There's been a lot of criticism about it and it's difficult to understand how the government is not undercutting Canadian workers when the plan is exclusively allowing them to pay less."

Cut to April 2013: The CBC reports that the Royal Bank of Canada laid off dozens of workers and replaced them with temporary workers from India. In British Columbia, a Chinese mining company advertised for jobs that required the knowledge of Mandarin. When they couldn't find enough Mandarin speakers in Western Canada (big surprise), they brought in 201 temporary workers from China. "What's been done has been to use the extensiveness of advertising as the evidence and so the employers put forward that they've advertised here and there and all the normal places and haven't had any applicants," said Reitz. "But even that, it's very difficult to know whether they've actually done that or what's the credibility of the information submitted, so it's a very murky area."

After a series of controversies, the Conservatives were forced to create new rules for the program which came into effect this year, including a $275 employer fee for a permit, the right for government officials to conduct workplace inspections, and the cancellation of both the two-tier wage system and the accelerated labour market opinion, which allowed for a sped up process to bring in workers. But at this point, Conservative reforms are like poorly applied band-aids on self-inflicted wounds. Since taking office, the TFWP has tripled in size, even growing during the recession. In 2011, nearly half a million temporary foreign workers came to Canada while the Conservative government cut down on family reunification visas and made it harder for refugees to get healthcare.

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There are now more temporary workers coming to Canada every year than permanent workers. Many of them come to Canada with little understanding of their rights, leaving them vulnerable to workplace abuse. Even though government officials can now legally inspect workplaces to prevent abuse, the new regulations that went into effect at the beginning this year have also dropped the ban on providing temporary foreign workers to employers with criminal convictions in human trafficking, sexually assaulting an employee, or causing the death of an employee. A shift in policy like that can only raise questions the safety of these low paid workers and whether or not the government is encouraging work environments that are up to Canadian standards.

"When the government puts out the figures on the number of temporary foreign workers being brought into the country, what are the skill levels of those workers?" said Reitz. "In many cases, they'll emphasize that many of them are high skill. But exactly what the skill breakdown is, is not something for which, as far as I'm aware, reliable statistics are available." While government officials might emphasize the presence of high skilled workers, many can be found in low skill environments, including the oil, agriculture, and construction industries. The CBC even interviewed a McDonald's franchise owner in Fernie, BC who used the program to staff his fast food restaurant.

This is the dark side of Canadian immigration policy. Workers from the developing world are brought to Canada to work for low wages on a temporary basis while immigrants that could set up roots in this country are discouraged. With the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, the Conservative government is facilitating the worst practises of economic globalization. We're used to the idea of outsourcing work to another country, but the Conservatives have allowed international outsourcing to occur within our own borders, forcing Canadian workers to compete with an international labour pool that has a far lower standard of living, causing "downward pressure" on wages and discouraging employers from providing training or incentives to hire.

Canada is unique in the world in that our citizens broadly recognize that immigration is necessary for our economic survival. The Conservatives have abused that broad support of immigration. They've used it to implement a policy that licks the boots of its corporate donors, providing them with cheap temporary labour, rather than a policy that would help build the country and give immigrants a chance at a better life.

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