Thursday, November 05, 2009

Canada’s new underclass

In just a few years, Canada brought in under its temporary foreign workers program an army of low-skilled migrant workers for jobs that Canadians are not willing to take under prevailing wage levels and working conditions. Jobs like vegetable and fruit-picking, work in the oil sands, bait worm collectors, cleaners, packers and people who dismember pigs for meat packaging plants.

When temporary jobs are completed or their work permits run out, or in some cases when jobs are wiped out by an economic recession, these workers are forced to take survival jobs, mostly underground, because of their lack of immigration status.

As a result, Canada’s temporary foreign workers program has created a burgeoning, permanent and illegal underclass. A new class of vulnerable workers without status and deprived of government protections.

Most of these migrant workers do not leave Canada when their work permits expire. Driven by poverty and worsening economic conditions in their home countries, more and more are opting to stay here and work underground.

What went wrong with Canada’s immigration policy?

Previously, Canada was the envy of the world when it used a points system in assessing new immigrants, the first country to adopt such a scheme. Under the points system which was started in the 1960s, higher points were given to education and work experience and those who earned high scores were accepted.

As it turned out, while the points system has helped Canada compete for highly educated workers, the most coveted immigrants in technology and other cutting-edge-industries, it also created a massive backlog of more than 800,000 applications in recent years, and waits of four years or more.

Meanwhile, employers in Canada have been demanding for skilled blue-collar workers, especially in western Canada, where Alberta’s busy oil fields have generated an economic boom. Employers have had a hard time finding workers because low-skilled workers and trades people have no hope under the inflexible point system.

Some Canadian employers eventually found a solution by sidestepping the points system and relying instead on a program initiated in 1998 that allows provincial governments to handpick some migrant workers and assign temporary foreign worker permits.

Thousands of blue-collar and unskilled workers, mostly visible minorities, are brought to Canada annually under the program.

In 2004, there were 126, 026 temporary foreign workers brought into the country; as of December 2008, this has almost doubled to 252,196.

Those who support the temporary foreign worker program rationalized the dramatic increase in migrant workers as necessary in managing labour demands in critical sectors of the economy and in overcoming the limitations of an immigration system that favours highly educated applicants but creates shortages of low-skilled workers.

Proponents of the program have also argued that temporary foreign workers benefit migrant-sending countries through remittances and skills transfer, and that the program offers a safe and a legal alternative to undocumented migration.

But the reality is not as rosy and as promising. Aside from creating a vulnerable class of workers, the program has not created opportunities for skills transfer. Most of the jobs assumed by these migrant workers are at the low end of the skills pyramid. Since they are brought in to Canada to satisfy the industry’s demands for short-term cheap labour, the temporary foreign worker program has left these workers defenceless and at risk of exploitation and ethnic strife.

A recent study of temporary migrant worker programs in both the United States and Canada described these workers as North America’s second-class citizens.

The study suggested that temporary foreign worker programs are contributing to the “precariousness” of work, a global phenomenon characterized by deregulation of employment standards, eroding social protection for workers and families, declining unionization, as well shifting the norm of standard employment relationship.

Temporary contracts and part-time work are fast becoming the new norms for highly paid consultants as well as lower paid temporary workers.

Competitive jobs are outsourced overseas, e.g., call centres, and non-competitive and mainly low-wage occupations are filled by temporary foreign workers, e.g., caregivers for children and the elderly. Furthermore, low-skill temporary foreign worker programs funnel workers into highly racialized occupations with growing concentrations of visible minority workers.

According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), foreign workers, including temporary foreign workers, have the same rights and protections as all Canadian workers as they are covered under the same federal and provincial labour standards. But reality tells us that migrant workers cannot exercise their rights in the same way as citizens because of language barriers, lack of information, geographic and social isolation, poor transportation, fear of employer reprisal, and dependence on their employers for permission to remain in Canada and future employment.

Temporary foreign workers are left susceptible to abuses in the labour market, by their employers who exploit their conditions and migrant status, and to corruption and fraud by unregulated third-party recruiters.

The absence of an effective government regulatory framework has also rendered the temporary foreign worker program almost unregulated.

While the program is part of Canada’s federal immigration policy, it is managed jointly by two federal departments (Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, HRSDC and Citizenship and Immigration Canada, CIC), and is supposedly governed by provincial statutes with regard to employment standards, labour and health. When problems are brought to the attention of federal officials, responsibility is often deferred back to provincial and municipal levels as a form of buck-passing. Thus, abuses of migrant workers go unchecked because there is no federal accountability and regulation. At the federal level, there is no protective legislation in place for temporary migrant workers.

In creating a permanent underclass of workers vulnerable to exploitation as cheap labour, Canada has now joined the ranks of countries importing workers with no intention of giving them a new home. Much like the “guest worker” programs in Europe when Germany and the Netherlands opened up their doors to migrant workers whom they never intended to absorb into their populations. For years, these guest workers had to endure living marginalized lives because they did not have access to settlement services.

Canada’s new underclass of temporary foreign workers is not something that fell suddenly from the sky because the bureaucrats in Ottawa were not doing their jobs. In its most recent 2009 Fall Report, the Auditor General of Canada questioned why CIC and the HRSDC never formally evaluated the Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP) and the pilot project for occupations requiring low levels of formal training that brought hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in the country.

In 2002, a total of 6,178 applications under the LCP were received; this number ballooned to 20,799 in 2008, an increase of more than 236 per cent. The pilot project for low-skilled workers, on the other hand, was launched without any formal objectives, with very limited analysis of risks and no basis on which to evaluate its success. It has been in pilot status for seven years up to now. Combined with live-in caregivers, temporary foreign workers under this pilot project now account for more than half of all temporary foreign workers in Canada.

Given the inherent risks in these two programs, the Auditor General found it difficult to believe why an evaluation has never been done by the federal government.

One can only surmise that the government simply took a blind eye and ignored the eventuality of a nascent underclass of exploited workers, a large surplus of unprotected workers ripe for the picking by Canadian employers looking for cheap labour.

The Auditor General’s scathing report concluded that overall, the practices of CIC and HRSDC do not ensure that foreign worker programs are delivered efficiently and effectively.

Canada’s temporary foreign worker program poses “significant risks to the integrity of the program and could leave many foreign workers in a vulnerable position, particularly those who are physically or linguistically isolated from the general community or are unaware of their rights,” the Auditor General warned.

If these temporary foreign workers are good enough to work, they are also good enough to stay.

The same class of workers built Canada during the last century, building the trans-Canada railroad and highways, constructing Canada’s skyscrapers and housing developments, cultivating and working on the fields in the Prairies. There is neither rhyme nor reason why Canada should not embrace this growing underclass, to be consistent to its humanitarian and compassionate ethos as a society.

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