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The Plight of Temporary Foreign Workers in Canada


By Mar 22, 2017

Image credits: Canada.com

 

Most media discussion concerning the precarious Canadian labor market centers on the repercussions of globalization. Indeed, labor news often include the underemployment of recent college graduates, the effects that the 21st century employee-employer relationship has had on professional workers, and – in Quebec – how austerity affects public sector workers.  However real these implications may be for native workers, we often fail to recognize that foreign workers also operate in this fast paced labor market and that the repercussions this has on their lives are much more grave. While the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) has helped foreigners find jobs, the conditions under which the low skilled workers must operate rarely meet the minimum labor standards that are upheld and guaranteed for native workers. Until recently, the TFWP has enabled the exploitation of foreign workers, even while existing under the premise of filling critical labor shortages.

The TFWP has allowed the government of Canada to lure foreigners into the country with as little as the promise of a job and no promise of permanent resident status.

According to the government of Canada, “[t]he Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) allows Canadian employers to hire foreign nationals to fill temporary labor and skill shortages when qualified Canadian citizens or permanent residents are not available.” Notwithstanding this, it is interesting to note that the TFWP has increased significantly since the mid 1990s especially when compared to the proportion of incoming permanent residents over the same period. One could therefore argue that the TFWP has allowed the government of Canada to lure foreigners into the country with as little as the promise of a job and no promise of permanent resident status.

In addition, research has demonstrated that as the Canadian Temporary Foreign Worker Program has expanded over the last decade, regional disparities in unemployment rates have increased. Moreover, there is a lot of evidence that points to the fact that foreign workers are overrepresented in industries that have very poor working conditions. In fact, most of them work in meat packing, fast food, and agriculture – three sectors in which wages are exceptionally low and health and safety risks are high, especially in the meatpacking industry. In sum, this evidence suggests that rather than positively filling labor shortages, the TWFP has helped fill vacancies among jobs that native workers avoid. Due to the low bargaining power these immigrants have, it has consequently allowed employers to maintain low wages and poor working conditions in these sectors.

Rather than positively filling labor shortages, the TWFP has helped fill vacancies among jobs that native workers choose to avoid

While some foreign workers managed to transition into a permanent status from the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, until December 2016 it was common practice that individuals were only allowed to remain in the country for a maximum of four years upon completing their four years as temporary foreign workers, as per the “four years in, four years out” policy.

Because of this rule, entire communities have been torn apart.  The fact that the Canadian government failed to recognize that individuals who have lived and worked in a certain place for nearly a decade may grow to call that place home is comparable to the plantation owners of the south, who would regularly uproot slaves from situations that they grow familiar to – ripping families and communities apart in the process – to sell and exchange people for economic gains. Both laborers are reduced to their working abilities, and their human capabilities to develop attachments and social bonds are denied. This being said, it is crucial to note that the extent to which their humanity has been denied is markedly different. Indeed, slaves were considered to be property: they were taken from their homes in Africa, shipped like cargo overseas, and forced to work for free under deplorably inhumane conditions for generations-while foreign temporary workers chose to migrate to Canada and they did so to attain paying jobs.

Laborers are reduced to their working abilities, and their human capabilities to develop attachments and social bonds are denied

Nonetheless, even after slavery was abolished in the south, Blacks were overrepresented in sectors that are characterized by low wages, poor working conditions, and little job security, such as domestic and agricultural work. Just as they took up jobs that White Americans did not want, Foreign Temporary Workers are employed in industries that are less desirable to today’s Canadians. While one could argue that the TFWP allows individuals to earn wages and support family members in their home country via remittances, the fact that the jobs available to foreigners are often unsafe, physically demanding, and poorly remunerated when compared to the jobs accessible to Canadians promotes a segregated labor force that exploits immigrants who have no choice but to settle for these undesirable conditions. In light of this, there are many community unions such as the Immigrant Workers Centre (IWC) in Montreal which are intended to provide a safe place for workers to discuss their plight without the fear of losing their jobs. By creating a united voice for these workers, the hope is that community unions coupled with increased public awareness will put pressure on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to require decent working conditions on the part of the employers that rely on foreign workers to fill in their “labor shortages”.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the McGill Left Review or its editors.

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