Explaining the screams for easy-to-exploit Temporary Foreign Workers: Canadians are just too uppity for many low-wage employers

Posted on May 16, 2014, 2:35 am
9 mins

Chinese workers building Canadian railways – another sordid story of “temporary foreign workers.” Below: B.C. Premier Christy Clark and Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan.

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark rose in that province’s Legislative Building in Victoria yesterday and apologized for a stream of racist laws and policies that began to be introduced almost a century and a half ago to control and exploit Chinese immigration.

“While the governments which passed these laws and polices acted in a manner that was lawful at the time, today this racist discrimination is seen by British Columbians – represented by all members in this Legislative Assembly – as unacceptable and intolerable,” Ms. Clark told the Legislature.

“We believe this formal apology is required to ensure that closure can be reached on this dark period in our province’s history,” she said, adding that all parties in the Legislature acknowledged “the hardship and suffering our past provincial governments imposed on Chinese Canadians.”

It’s about time someone apologized. 

But, for the life of me, I can’t see how the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa isn’t repeating the disgraces of the past with its train wreck of a Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

The Harper TFW Program serves essentially the same purpose as the Chinese Exclusion Act and like laws and regulations. That is, it exists to restrict working class immigrants to temporary status, unable even to bring their families let alone become Canadians with the full rights of citizenship, and to depress wages and weaken the market power of all working people, including those who already have Canadian citizenship.

True, the Harper Government’s TFW Program does not single out one racial or cultural group for abuse, and the “head tax” has been privatized, but the end result is precisely the same.

Let us hope it takes less than a century before some Canadian government apologizes to the victims of this sordid program for the shabby and unworthy treatment they have received from Canada. Of course, if the Harperites have their way, the victims will all have been shipped home long before that happens.

It hardly matters whether it was a mere lack of attention or a profound lack of sensitivity that led a group representing some Canadian restaurant owners to publish full-page newspaper advertisements the day before the B.C. Legislature’s apology, threatening Canadian jobs if they can’t have their easy-to-exploit temporary foreign workers.

“Temporary foreign workers help us protect ALL restaurant jobs,” the advertisement claims preposterously after asserting, none too subtly, that without TFWs restaurant owners would have to close their doors.

Poppycock. What they might have to do is pay a living wage, or treat their employees with a little respect. What they might have to do is charge a little more for fast food – or take a slightly smaller profit.

Notwithstanding the risible claim of groups like “Restaurants Canada” – which styles itself “the voice of foodservice” – that the TFW Program is “protecting Canadian jobs,” the real attitude of many Canadian restaurant owners and other small business people tells a different story.

Indeed, when they feel comfortable enough to slip outside their message box, a great many of them disparage their fellow Canadians, especially the young people who traditionally fill food service jobs in this country, because Canadian workers sometimes stand up for their rights and demand fair treatment.

Consider this unguarded commentary by a restaurant owner in my community, St. Albert, Alberta, sympathetically reported by the local bi-weekly.

“After years of struggling to retain full-time staff,” the paper’s reporter wrote, the local fast-food restaurant operator “resorted to hiring two foreign workers…” The reason, the reporter uncritically explained, was that the restaurateur found Canadian employees didn’t show up for work, “showed a lack of commitment” or – quelle horreur! – wanted to change their schedules.

“The problem is not the pay but they always have excuses,” the paper quoted the restaurant owner as saying. “They would stay for a few months and then they tell me they can’t come in … I can’t just stop my business to accommodate (their) schedule.”

In the same story, the president of the local Chamber of Commerce fretted that the Harper Government’s current momentary halt in restaurant temporary foreign worker approvals could be extended to other parts of the economy. Our famously ex-Tory Member of Parliament, who apparently found the Harper Government too progressive for his taste, has also huffed recently about the supposed unreliability of Canadian employees.

The story says local employers pay as much or more for TFWs as Canadian employees – a suspect claim in light of the Alberta Federation of Labour’s revelation yesterday that Alberta employers are getting the nod from Ottawa to hire thousands of foreign workers at rates below the market wage, sometimes as much as $5 an hour below!

In other words, talking points notwithstanding, the alleged labour shortage, the claimed skills shortage, the purported high cost of foreign workers and the desire to protect Canadian jobs aren’t any of them the real issue – it’s the attitude of Canadian employees.

And remember, the Canadian employees we’re talking about are people like our own children!

This is a dirty little secret of many small businesses in communities all over Canada. All the government, Chamber of Commerce and trade association talking points in the world can’t disguise it: The reason so many Canadian fast food employers love temporary foreign workers is not because Canadians are lousy workers, and certainly not because there’s a genuine shortage of Canadians who could do the work, but because TFWs have no rights and are easy to exploit.

Uppity Canadians too readily stand up for their rights.

This situation allows the wages of all working Canadians to be pushed down – at a time when “The Market” says they should go up.

Of course, as we have come to know well, Canadian “market fundamentalists” are quite happy to interfere with the market on those occasions when it doesn’t work to their advantage.

And that, people, is why we have something like 85,000 TFWs here in Alberta – cut off from their families with no employment rights and few civil rights. And why low-wage employers are screaming for more.

I’ll give the last word today to AFL President Gil McGowan, who called yesterday for the TFW Program to be abandoned and for Canadian values to be upheld by granting all temporary foreign workers who are here now the right to remain in Canada and apply for full citizenship.

Unlike the Canadian workers self-hating Canadian employers apparently can’t stand, Mr. McGowan explained, temporary foreign workers “don’t have the ability to tell employers to ‘take this job and shove it’ when they’re being abused.”

In other words, he said, “the TFW program is not immigration, it’s exploitation.”

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

23 Comments to: Explaining the screams for easy-to-exploit Temporary Foreign Workers: Canadians are just too uppity for many low-wage employers

    • dana matherson

      May 27th, 2014


  1. bert

    May 16th, 2014

    7 years working for the same restaurant doesn’t “temporary” to me.
    We are starting to behave like southern U.S. states where they use the illegal Mexican Workers in their business but complain about poor boarder security. Sad.

  2. CuJoYYC

    May 16th, 2014

    On the one hand, we’re told that restaurants will close en masse without the cheap labour provided by the TFW programme yet on the other hand, restaurants and other businesses claim that only 2% of their workforce is comprised of TFW. One can only conclude from this ‘logic’ that if their businesses teeter on the brink of closing if the foreign workers are removed, then the business is marginal at best and, market forces, being the all-powerful, always correct, omnipotent force that we’re constantly told they are, will force the closure of these marginal businesses and the universe will unfold as it should.

  3. May 16th, 2014

    After years of re-assuring the base that “no Canadians will lose their jobs” while enacting a program that does exactly that in order to drive down wages for their employer buddies, it is pretty enjoyable to see the CPC scramble to address their self-created credibility problem. Almost as enjoyable as watching employers try to justify hiring (and exploiting) TFWs as a way to “save Canadian jobs”. What glorious and spectacular self-delusion they are capable of.

  4. political ranger

    May 16th, 2014

    Thank you for this piece David.
    When this program was announced I couldn’t believe Canadians would choose to emulate 3rd world banana republics. But it wasn’t the first time I was wrong in my consideration of my contemporaries. It’s long past time that this outrage was recognized for what it is. Another welfare program for corporate business.

  5. sm

    May 16th, 2014

    Sometimes it kind of works. I think of Maple Leaf in Brandon. First of all, many of the jobs there to be done are horrid. Working in cold, repetitive motions of cutting fresh pig carcasses with a sharp knife, in the smell of newly dead pigs. It’s very unpleasant. It pays okay, but not that much. BUT, the UCFW is a part of the enterprise, and does good work for the TFW, and in the case of Brandon, from what I can tell, there is a big emphasis on actual immigration. Get the families here. Get the kids in school. Volunteers in the community are teaching English to the at-home parent if there is one.
    I do wonder, though,would the laws of supply and demand have worked without TFW? How much would you have to pay someone in those jobs to get them to stay? I guess we’ll never know. We did import a bunch of people willing to work for less than most of us, but at least the offer of actual relocation, support, the real possibility of a livable existence. And the community did pick up a huge part of the cost that frankly should have gone to Maple Leaf in terms of infrastructure, rising housing costs for everyone in the area because of the influx of workers — but would that have happened anyway if the wages had been high enough to attract Canadians? And now, what will happen to the community with these new Canadians when the bottom falls out of the pork market? I see some possible advantages to TPW so long as it is a stepping stone for citizenship and has an outside force like the UFCW looking out for the workers — all the workers, not just Cdn ones.

    • Stew

      May 17th, 2014

      The only reason for this “pork market”, as you call it, is because it is actually an export market. So, to answer you question about how those communities will cope, perhaps the people who buy the pork could speak up. But they won’t because they don’t even know; they live outside of Canada. What’s worse is the people who come here to process that pork, aren’t allowed to say a word.

  6. John Cameron

    May 16th, 2014

    From your piece

    “[TFW] exists to restrict working class immigrants to temporary status, unable even to bring their families let alone become Canadians with the full rights of citizenship, and to depress wages and weaken the market power of all working people, including those who already have Canadian citizenship.”

    You write as if this was a bug. Wrong, it’s a feature.

    • G. James

      May 16th, 2014

      When I read the piece I interpreted that section not written as if it were a bug but as a designed feature, the principles of the program.

  7. Bobbie Saga

    May 16th, 2014

    Out in my neck of the woods, a few TFWs had the audacity to spill the beans about their boss at a local fast food joint named Timmy’s. These TFWs are now know as too CANADIANIZED! Code for…

    It’s not at all a funny situation, but LMAO at the hypocrisy of the BC government and the corporate minions that run it here. Employers in AB and BC are the worst offenders when it comes to the TFWP, but Christy’s out there apologizing for the last go round to build the CPR. Our BC jobs program: made in… you pick the country.

    And BTW Dave, you are beginning to remind me of Bob Edwards. Love your WTF Alberta!

  8. Athabascan

    May 16th, 2014

    Why don’t we call it what it really is: Human trafficking.

    Not being able to exploit Canadian workers, these employers have found a way , with the help of neocons, to exploit foreigners and profit under the so-called “temporary foreign worker program.”

    Anyone who claims this program can be “tweeked” is either misinformed or is in on it. In truth, it is a program that at its core is exploitative. It is not in the interests of the TFW, and it is not in the interests of Canadian workers. So, who does it benefit, really?

    For the answer to the above question, one need figure out who introduced and who presently defends the merits of the program.

  9. Jack C

    May 16th, 2014

    Has Gil McGowan ever had a private sector job? Does he know what he’s talking about?

    • Expat Albertan

      May 17th, 2014

      Nice evasion, Jack. OK, here’s one for you: has Jason Kenney ever had a private sector job (sorry, Canadian Taxpayer Federation doesn’t count)? Has Stephen Harper (beyond the mail room job his dad got for him)?

    • May 17th, 2014

      Yes, because a private-sector job is the ultimate desiderata of whether one’s comments are informed and correct… . By this logic, if one hasn’t been a teacher, one can’t have an opinion on education. If one hasn’t been a judge or lawyer, one can’t have an opinion on a law. Rather than addressing the substance of McGowan’s criticism, you attack the person making the criticism. Lame.

    • jerrymacgp

      May 17th, 2014

      From Mr McGowan’s official bio at the AB Fed of Labour’s website: “…Raised in rural north-central Alberta, McGowan received degrees from both the University of Alberta in Edmonton (Bachelor of Arts in History) and Carleton University in Ottawa (Master of Journalism) before embarking on a career in journalism.…McGowan then worked for the Alberta labour movement as a researcher, communications officer and community organizer for a decade before being first elected as AFL president in 2005.…”

      A career in journalism means working in the private sector. So, the answer to your question is, ‘Yes’. Does he know what he’s talking about? Does Carleton hand out Master’s degrees like popcorn?

      • Jack C

        May 17th, 2014

        So by Jerrymacgp’s definition, MacGowan hasn’t ever had a private sector job. All of his life has been spent in school or working for a union. There’s lots of practical experience, NOT.

        • John C.

          May 21st, 2014

          Jack C – I (a Canadian by birth) have direct, recent experience working with folks in the Temporary Foreign Worker program. What MacGowan is saying – that the people working these jobs should be eligible for citizenship if they’re so vital to the economy – is correct, regardless of whether he’s had a private sector job or not. (All my jobs have been in the private sector, incidentally, so your flimsy reasoning doesn’t quite pan out here). Blind parroting of “unions bad!” is a terrible look. Take it from someone who’s seen the TFW program in action. Or don’t, if you’re averse to qualitative experience in addition to quantitative facts.

    • Athabascan

      May 17th, 2014

      I’m not Gil McGowan, but I know what I’m talking about, and I have always worked in the private sector. So, by your standards, Jack, my opinion is informed and should count. In my opinion and based on my employment experience, the TFW program is the modern equivalent of human trafficking.

      Are there any other means tests I need to pass in order for my opinion to count? If so, feel free to move the goal post.

  10. Expat Albertan

    May 16th, 2014

    “In other words, he said, “the TFW program is not immigration, it’s exploitation.”

    Testify, brother!!

  11. G. James

    May 16th, 2014

    At the time, lawful, yes. Immoral, yes. But morality was never an obstacle to Western progress.

  12. May 17th, 2014

    I can’t believe what the BC Government is saying. The TFW program needs to go and business needs to stop taking advantage of it. Funny our own Canadian youth and disabled Canadians cannot get jobs, why Canadian companies are saying they are posting jobs and Canadians are applying but the companies are hiring TFW’s at lower wage and treating TFW’s bad. Canadians are are also losing hours to TFW’s and the BC Premier thinks we need the TFW program, funny a lot of the abuse is in BC! And Gil have you ever tried to get a job in the private sector?Canadians cannot get jobs now and everyone thinks we need more! The TFW program was for shortage of skilled workers and where is there shortage of skilled workers in the restaurant industry! Tim,MacDonalds are making huge profits and are paying shit and they are housing TFW’s in an apartment like 6 and taking half of there pay for rent! Clearly abuse and now we have slimy Tim Hortons owners passing out a pamphlet telling people about the job losses, what bullshit! Get rid of the TFW program and the restaurant industry pay more wages to people! Look at the profits MacDonalds makes!


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