An economy that profits from inequality

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Temporary foreign workers protest

Economic desperation exists among long-time community members, migrant workers

Over the past four years, the Cooper Institute has been doing research and community engagement on issues surrounding the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) in P.E.I. In recent months media coverage from across Canada has drawn attention to the complex issues at play, much of it thankfully moving beyond the old racist refrain of foreigners are taking our jobs.

Pitting local workers against migrant workers is a distraction from the real issues, and is a tactic that the present regime has used often. The federal government has been actively blaming and criminalizing migrants and immigrants to Canada. Jason Kenny, the current employment minister and former immigration minister invented terms such as “bogus refugees,” “marriages fraud,” “birth tourism,” “human smugglers” and “foreign criminals” in order to justify a rise in deportations and an overhaul of Canada’s immigration system.

This administration is creating ways of stripping people of their permanent residency status and even of their Canadian citizenship. The recent moratorium against TFWs in the food services sector is essentially a mass-deportation order for the approximately 45,000 migrant workers already working in Canada, and hoping for a better life for their families.

The unregulated growth of this program over the past decade has been part of the federal government’s business friendly, neoliberal agenda. The 2007 federal budget declared that Canada would create the best-educated, most skilled, and most flexible workforce in the world. The growth of the TFWP has indeed provided educated, skilled, and flexible workers to businesses.  But across the board jobs in Canada have become more “flexible.” This flexibility consists of poorly paid, short-term contracts without benefits replacing jobs that used to be full time.

Service sector employers categorically avoid offering benefits to their employees by only hiring part-time employees who work almost, but not quite, full time hours. The flexibility is further enforced by the changes to the EI programs that will require people to take any job available or move away, leaving rural communities empty, and providing plenty of flexible workers for the extractive industries in the West.

It is only the demands of business, which have governed the rising numbers of migrant workers entering Canada. The rise of precarious work and of the expansion of the TFWP are both symptoms of the same problem: a political and economic agenda that drives down wages and working conditions. Economic desperation exists both among long-time community members and among migrant workers; both are a product of - and a benefit to - an economy that profits from inequality.  

The TFWP has been structured to create a two-tiered job market, with low-wages and a loss of rights, resulting in captive workers unable to complain or change jobs. The TFWP has failed repeatedly to enforce its own rules, let alone protect the rights of this vulnerable population, or monitor international recruitment agencies that habitually charge exorbitant fees to migrants seeking work in Canada. The workers who have come to Canada are suffering from the effects of the same global economic policies that have impoverished rural Canadians. They come to Canada in the hopes of better jobs that will allow them to support their families from afar. Their high level of debt, reliance on their employer, and lack of family and community obligations makes migrant workers efficient cogs in a dehumanizing profit machine.

When asking how to make a more livable economy and a more just job market, let us not let those in power off the hook. Blaming and excluding those working in our communities as migrant workers diverts attention from those responsible, and repeats the historical mistake of blaming immigrants for unemployment and economic trouble.

Canada desperately needs to re-build the immigration system, which has been gutted by the current administration. In 1986, Canada’s immigration policies received an award from the UN. The new immigration policies are inspired by those of Australia, a country whose policies have been openly labeled racist by the UN Human Rights Commissioner, who compared them to South African apartheid.

In the short term, fair options should be provided for migrant workers already living and working in Canada. Provincially and federally we must strengthen Canadian laws, policies, and practices to ensure just wages and working conditions for everyone. Everyone working in Canada, regardless of their immigration status, should be entitled to a livable income and good labour standards. Canada’s private sector should be made to adapt; true prosperity cannot be built on poverty.

By Josie Baker (guest opinion)

Josie Baker is a member of the Cooper Institute, Charlottetown

Organizations: Cooper Institute, UN

Geographic location: Canada, P.E.I., Australia Charlottetown

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