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March 25, 2011

No One is Illegal! How (Im)migration Policy Feeds Racism – The Temporary Foreign Worker Program

SS Editorial

No one is illegal!

March 21 is the International Day of Action to Eliminate Racism. Sanctioned by the United Nations in 1966 to mark South Africa’s Sharpeville massacre - where 69 people were shot dead by police in a 1960 anti-apartheid demonstration - March 21 is now used in Canada to protest ongoing racism against aboriginal peoples, immigrants, and people of colour.

Fighting racism in Canada is not just about opposing private hate speech organizations like the neo-nazis in Calgary. Fighting racism in Canada is also about fighting state policies that foster racist ideas and behaviors such as the refusal to recognize the national rights of aboriginal peoples, employment practices that discriminate against people of colour, and (im)migration policies that victimize non-residents.

State Racism and Cheap Labour

One of the chief examples of state based racism is the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). Since 2008 more migrants have entered the country as temporary cheap labour than permanent migrants, over 300,000 versus 240,000 people per year. Two thirds of the 300,000 are people of colour from developing countries, which clearly shows the racist as well as class character of the program.

The TFWP is rooted in a temporary agricultural worker program that began in 1966 to bring seasonal harvest labour from the Caribbean and Mexico. Beginning on a modest scale, the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) established a model for the exploitation of foreign labour that bypasses labour standards, labour codes, and human rights.

Some of the features of SAWP are:
  • ‘Naming’. Farm employers can name who gets to return and exclude others by omission – with no reason having to be given. Some countries like Mexico have required sealed evaluations that can only be opened by the sending government.
  • Family Separation. Only married men with children can apply. This way the worker is likely to return and not try to become a permanent migrant.
  • Unilateral wage determination. Wages are negotiated by farm employers, the federal government, and the sending country. Workers have no say in this employer brokered process and, in some countries like Guatemala, had to bribe their way into the program.
  • Partial or no benefits. Despite workers having to pay deductions for income tax, employment insurance, pension, and medical benefits, there is no full access to public social wages. The United Food and Commercial Workers had to fight the federal government’s ‘don’t tell’ policy to access 23 million dollars of parental benefits.
  • Substandard living and working conditions. Farm employers frequently do not honour housing commitments, charge illegal fees, and do not train workers in health and safety measures. Some employers even hold travel documents to prevent the physical movement of temporary workers.
  • Deportation with no review rights. If there is no work, or a worker gets sick or injured, or a worker questions their contract, they can be deported back to the sending country with no questions asked.
  • Employer, not publically, administered.
In 2002 the Liberals used SAWP as a model for a national low wage migrant worker pilot – the Temporary Foreign Workers Program for occupations requiring Lower Skills – and expanded the scope of recruiting to Asia. In 2006 the Conservatives took this pilot and made it a permanent feature of Canada’s immigration policy as a way to combat Canada’s aging workforce. Now TFWP covers all 500 occupational groupings in Canada’s 17 million person labour market.

There is virtually no supervision of employers. An employer, or labour broker, applies for a federal low income workforce license, which the Conservatives define as waiting seven days after domestic posting with no verification requirements. Once granted, employers are virtually free to do as they please since regulation is left to the provinces.

The growth in temporary foreign workers has been astounding. In 1999 there were 82,000 temporary foreign workers (besides SAWP there was also the nanny/domestic workers program). By 2009 the official figure had tripled to 300,000, while the Auditor General estimated there were 370,000.

One particularly disturbing feature of this growth is the use of temporary foreign workers in Alberta. Alberta’s ratio of foreign temporary workers to domestic workers is the highest in Canada. This may provide an objective reason for why Alberta, a province with the one of the lowest union densities, has become a magnet for neo-nazi organizing in Canada.

Internationalism or Nationalism in Response?

Canadian unions have long been aware of the challenge of foreign temporary workers.

The United Food and Commercial Workers has waged a prolonged campaign to bring SAWP workers within the scope of Canadian labour laws. By 2000 the UFCW organized nine Agricultural Workers Centres (four in Ontario, three in British Columbia, one in the Maritimes and one in Quebec) since agricultural workers are largely not allowed to join trade unions.

In 2008 the centers fielded 40,000 complaints about working conditions, housing, and refusal of medical benefits. They also provide health and safety training, translation and long distance phone services. And the centers act as advocates for workers in dealing with employers, from health and safety claims to deportations.

The United Steelworkers Union of Canada has partnered up with Migrante Ontario, an organization of Filipino domestics and nannies, to provide similar services.

These advocacy and service strategies have been complemented by some public policy change. The Manitoba NDP government in 2009 passed the Workers Recruitment and Protection Act to establish a supervised licensing system for employers and labour brokers who use temporary foreign workers. This has dramatically improved compliance with labour and human rights laws and access to public benefits.

The UFCW has even signed a protocol with the Mexican state of Michoacon to represent migrant workers from this state across North America. Some unions have signed protocols between national union federations to do the same as between Indonesian and Malaysian workers.

But, if unions have worked hard and imaginatively to represent this new, growing workforce, there is the danger of arguing for reform based on protecting the domestic workforce in service of national labour market needs.

The Canadian Labour Congress position on temporary foreign workers is to eliminate it or, if not, to regulate it in giving priority to domestic workers through a Migrant Workers Commission. Down this road lie nationalist arguments that divide workers as the example of Europe’s temporary worker programs show.

The workers movement has a duty to protect all workers, regardless of nationality. And it has a duty to not pit workers against each other. The working class movement has to fight exploitation, not adapt to the nation-state system that upholds it.

As the Vancouver anti-racist march this year put it, ‘No One is Illegal!

All figures quoted are from Karl Flecker, Model Program – or Mistake? Canadian Labour Congress, 2010.