Three reasons why Ottawa’s Temporary Foreign Workers Program ‘reforms’ likely mean little

Posted on June 21, 2014, 1:54 am
10 mins

There’s always been a worldwide pool of skilled and unskilled employees like these fellows for jobs in North America – immigration. Below: Employment Minister Jason Kenney and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander.

Canadians are within their rights to be highly skeptical of the long list of changes to the Harper Government’s Temporary Foreign Workers Program announced yesterday by Employment Minister Jason Kenney.

Indeed, we would be nuts to be anything but skeptical about this effort by the government to “change the channel” on what really is a national scandal.

First, there has simply never been any reason for a temporary worker recruitment program in Canada except as an illegitimate mechanism to suppress wages and weaken the bargaining position of Canadian workers.

I don’t think anyone has missed it that – at least until Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his reformed Reform Party gang got their hooks into a majority government – Canada was a desirable destination for working people and their families from every part of the world. People quite literally risk their lives to come here.

Indeed, judging from what Mr. Kenney and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander have to say much of the time, we must be ever vigilant to ensure our coastlines and borders are not besieged by vast armies of illegal immigrants, queue jumpers every one!

This indisputable fact makes it perfectly obvious that our immigration program and our domestic employers should be up to the task of finding sufficient workers to do the work that needs to get done in Canada. All they need to do is offer competitive pay to attract people in needed occupations and fast track the process for those occupations to get workers here in a timely fashion.

When such workers get here, as in the past, employers would have to treat them the same consideration as other Canadian employees. So if there are gaps in the market, we have always had a way to fill them that is fair to “foreign” workers – who get to quickly become Canadian workers – and to the Canadian workers who were already here.

The key, of course, to understanding why the program was ever set up is contained in the thoughts “competitive pay” and “the same consideration.” The goal of the program, was, is and ever shall be to provide cheap and easy-to-exploit workers, and to push down the costs of employing Canadian workers who are already here.

It’s just that it’s become a political problem for the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and thus will have to be moved to the back burner for a spell.

Nothing in the 14 points noted in the Globe and Mail’s report of Mr. Kenney’s announcement changes this fundamental reality, even if some of the changes are, on their face, improvements from the way things were done before.

Second, the program is full of caveats designed to help it continue to fulfill its original principal purpose – wage suppression.

Consider this point from the Globe and Mail’s story yesterday: “There will be no access to the program for employers in the accommodation, food services and retail trade sectors – as well as those who hire cleaners, construction helpers, landscapers and security guards – if they operate in areas of high unemployment, which the government defines as being above 6 per cent.” (Emphasis added.)

In other words, the restriction won’t apply here in Alberta where unemployment lately has been well under 5 per cent, even though in many communities our kids and older people can’t find unskilled summer or part-time work because of competition from foreign workers.

Yes, employers have lots to say about this, but rather than deny it, they habitually smear Canadian workers, especially young ones, as lazy and shiftless – which around here usually means they insist on their rights and demand fair market-based pay for their work. This is the real problem.

Here in my community, the Edmonton-area suburb of St. Albert, the local Chamber of Commerce within minutes of the announcement exultantly let its members know that “the Government of Canada is ending the moratorium that was placed on the food services sector effective immediately.”

So the TFW program will continue as a wage suppression mechanism here in Alberta, where the unemployment rate is lower and therefore unskilled workers would have more power if the market was allowed to function without interference to tilt the proverbial field even further in the interests of employers.

Here’s another point from the Globe story to ponder: “Farm workers who enter Canada under the On-Farm Primary Agriculture program are exempt from the cap, the reduced timelines and the higher fees.”

In other words, there will no additional bargaining power for agricultural workers in Alberta just because the market demands it. Alberta’s unconstitutional prohibition on union representation for agricultural workers also remains in place.

Other changes, in particularly the as-yet undefined shorter time period in which TFWs may remain in Canada, will make foreign workers more vulnerable and easier to exploit. And those big fines for employers who break the rules? Don’t expect a fine of $100,000 ever to be asked for, let alone levied.

Employers, who have benefitted enormously both directly from the TFW Program and its interference in the labour market by helping employers push down wages all across Canada, will complain mightily, as they have been doing for weeks.

But can there be any doubt that they are being privately reassured by the government that if it gets a renewed majority, this additional “red tape” will soon be snipped away and the program will soon be restored to its original glory?

I’m sorry that I have to respectfully disagree with my friends in the labour movement who cheered Mr. Kenney’s announcement yesterday as a victory of sorts. It’s not much of one, and if the Harper Government comes back, so will the original TFW Program.

Third, we know this government already lies about this policy.

For evidence, we have the useful work of the Alberta Federation of Labour, whose researchers discovered the federal government uses data it had to know was misleading to justify the TFW Program.

How did the government know more TFWs were needed? It turns out it asked groups like the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the CFIB responded with a resounding yes. After all, that’s exactly what they were trying all along to persuade the government to do.

The real problem that employers of low-skill workers such as the fast-food industry face here in Alberta is that they don’t want to pay a living wage. And they don’t want to recognize that workers have rights. The solution is pretty obvious, and it’s not TFWs.

Thanks to this program, hourly wages for retail workers and grocery clerks in high-cost Fort McMurray are falling! Meanwhile, legitimate studies – not the kind of bogus justification cobbled together by the Harper Government with the help of the CFIB – find no evidence there’s a shortage of low-skilled workers, even here in Alberta.

Now the Harper Government, which fudged the need for the program, says it’s going bring in a “more comprehensive and rigorous” process to ensure the program operates properly.

Can anyone seriously be confident this will change anything, or even happen? Please!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

7 Comments to: Three reasons why Ottawa’s Temporary Foreign Workers Program ‘reforms’ likely mean little

  1. Stephanie

    June 21st, 2014

    Wage suppression is the goal, and it’s alive and well in booming Saskatchewan. I am aware of a transportation company in Saskatoon which advertized for a courier with this line about wages: “TBD, based on experience”. One would assume this means if an applicant comes with experience, say 35 years as a professional driver with a spotless record, that person might expect a wage based on experience. But no, the starting wage is $11.00 per hour which is $.80 per hour above the current SK minimum wage. The courier work involves delivering primarily auto parts which is a multi-billion dollar a year industry, in a booming Saskatchewan economy. The industrial area of Saskatoon’s north end is growing at an astounding rate with all kids of businesses supplying the resource extraction sector in the province mining for gas, oil, uranium, gold, harvesting lumber etc. This is where the parts are being delivered. And the driver gets $11.00 per hour.

    When an employee says to a colleague that he is shocked by the low wage, that colleague passes this along to the boss who says he doesn’t want to hear anyone commenting on the wage. And a memo goes out to staff that if the part delivered isn’t signed for by a legible signature, and if any parts go missing, the drivers will be held responsible for the cost of the part. If the transportation company is having trouble with the details of shipping and receiving with its customers, solving this problem shouldn’t be the responsibility of an $11.00 per hour driver.

    Saskatoon has become among the most expensive places to live in Canada. A full time job at $11.00 per hour means a gross take home pay of $1,760 per month before deductions. The average rent for a one bedroom apartment in Saskatoon is between $700 – $900 per month. You do the math.

    This is the reality. And when Canadian workers complain, they get told to shut up about it. I expect this is a common experience in the service sector in Saskatchewan and Alberta these days. In the case I’ve described, the Canadian worker said screw this and quit. Canadians workers aren’t lazy, but they know when they’re getting a raw deal.

    Reply
  2. Alex P

    June 21st, 2014

    Oh this drives this immigrant child crazy! I turned ten the summer we arrived in Edmonton, Mom, Dad, older sister, an elderly grandfather, and me. Less english skills between all of us than it would take to read a menu.

    The only federal government we have spent years destroying data gathering (liberal bias) and any evidence based approach to governance (same) all for the privilege of enriching the few and making policy reversals the norm. Slave owners in the Americas thought of their slaves as smart and happy in comparison to poor whites until the slaves were emancipated. Then they instantly became stupider than the poor whites overnight.

    Whatever you do, ignore the common cause behind the curtain.

    Reply
    • Filostrato

      June 22nd, 2014

      Glad you stuck around. I still think of your post about your young son going to superhero camp one summer. We definitely need all of those we can get.

      Reply
      • Alex P

        June 22nd, 2014

        Thanks for remembering, Filostrato. Just to update, the kid refuses to patrol the streets at night, saying “I’m just a kid!” Also, no stylized vehicle.

        Reply
        • Filostrato

          June 23rd, 2014

          I guess we’ll have to wait until he gets his driver’s licence. Meanwhile, he can catch up on his sleep.

          Reply
  3. Filostrato

    June 21st, 2014

    Wage suppression and union busting sound like the tactics of banana republics. To hire temporary foreign workers for minimum wages jobs which they can’t leave without becoming unemployed and are so badly paid that they can’t even go back without spending most of what they have earned sounds like modern day slavery to me. Representation by a union is one of the human rights outlined in the UN Declaration. “Right to Work” thinking cloaked in a bogus shortage of workers in Canada is all this is.

    I was talking to someone yesterday whose university-aged daughter has found a summer job near here but doesn’t know if she will be able to “get the hours” – something like those zero-hours contracts in the UK. You just have to sit around and hope they’ll call you in. Meanwhile, she has next year’s tuition to save up for. What kind of a way is that to treat our young people?

    Speaking of questionable employers, when WalMart barged into Canada is this area years ago, a local business in the same mall which had a very similar name and had had it for years had to change its name because it was inconveniencing the behemoth. The aforementioned behemoth also had a policy of giving people fewer hours than were required to qualify for Unemployment Insurance (I still call it U.I. – you don’t need insurance in case you become employed) and thus saved themselves having to contribute to the plan. Likewise with CPP. In the U.S., WalMart workers are so badly paid that huge numbers of them qualify for food stamps and income assistance which other U.S. citizens have to pay for. Meanwhile, the parent company is raking it in. Why was this considered a good business model for Canada? It certainly kept me from ever darkening their doorstep. Why should I contribute to the destruction of our society?

    I believe some of the UI/CPP issues have been addressed since then on this side of the border but BehemothMart does have the effect of destroying smaller local businesses in the area.

    Reply
  4. Athabascan

    June 22nd, 2014

    The TFW program is a form of human trafficking. No amount of “tweaking” can fix a public policy that is fundamentally flawed and designed to benefit so few.

    All of the so-called changes announced by Kenney are window dressing at best. Why are the champions of the free-market so eager to interfere in the self-correcting nature of the labour market? This flies in the face of basic economics – the guiding principle of Harper-cons.

    Reply

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