Temporary Foreign Workers: the broader context

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Introduction

Canadians have recently had their attention drawn to serious problems with the Temporary Foreign Workers Program. It is useful to look at these issues in the broader context.

From permanent to temporary

Over the past decade, Canada’s immigration program has shifted significantly from permanent to temporary immigration. In 2008, for the first time, the numbers of Temporary Foreign Workers in Canada exceeded the number of Permanent Residents admitted. Since then the number of Temporary Foreign Workers has continued to grow.

This shift represents a radical change for Canada: previously, we were a country that welcomed newcomers on a permanent basis, with most becoming citizens. Immigrants have traditionally been understood to be contributing to building the nation and our communities, not simply contributing their labour. A notable exception to that practice, the expulsion of Chinese labourers after the construction of the railway in the nineteenth century, is a source of national shame. Countries that have developed “guest worker” programs, particularly in Europe, have learned by experience the disadvantages, for workers and for society, of relying on the labour of people who are not permitted to integrate into the community, creating a two-tier society.

The large-scale expansion of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program occurred without broad public discussion. Canadians were not given an opportunity to voice their opinion on the shift towards increased temporary migration, even though it represents a major change in Canadian immigration policy.

Low-skilled versus high-skilled

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program is made up broadly of two parts. At one end, it provides a convenient way for high-skilled workers to come to Canada: they enjoy certain privileges (such as the right to be accompanied by family) and have avenues to permanent residence should they wish to stay. At the other end, the program brings in “low-skilled” workers, who have very limited rights and usually no chance of obtaining permanent status. The workers are temporary (they have to leave after 4 years) but the labour needs they are filling are often not temporary.

These longer-term labour shortages being filled by Temporary Foreign Workers may be partly caused by the fact that it has been harder for immigrants willing and able to fill those jobs to come to Canada as permanent residents. Economic immigrants are increasingly selected based on advanced educational and professional qualifications. When Canada identifies needs for workers in “high-skilled” professions, they are recruited with a clear path to permanent residence, but when we need people to work in food services, in greenhouses or on farms, they are recruited on a temporary basis, without the possibility of ever obtaining permanent status. This is discriminatory.

Another cause of this need for Temporary Foreign Workers is the unwillingness of some Canadian employers to pay wages and offer working conditions that would attract Canadian job seekers.

The current situation is bad for migrant workers and bad for Canadians

It is extremely unfortunate that Temporary Foreign Workers have too often been presented recently as if pitted against Canadian workers. The current situation should not be blamed on the migrant workers, on Canadian workers or on specific sectors. At its root, the problem is a structural one.

Because of their temporary status, migrant workers are extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. While many employers treat them fairly, it is easy for others to underpay them, overcharge them for substandard accommodation and expose them to dangerous working conditions. There are many documented cases of abuse of these workers across the country. It is difficult for people with only temporary status to complain about mistreatment because they may simply be deported. At its most extreme, the exploitation of Temporary Foreign Workers has placed them in situations of human trafficking.

Having workers who are used and then discarded is bad for society as a whole. It is never good for our communities to have two-tier membership, where some people have limited rights and cannot integrate properly or advance themselves.

Our own history teaches us the benefits of permanent immigration

Throughout Canada’s history, immigrants have started their lives here at the bottom of the ladder and worked their way into essential roles in our society, building businesses, creating culture, founding institutions, becoming political leaders and raising families. How many of us would not be here today if, in the past, immigrants considered “low-skilled” were forced to leave Canada after a few years? We should learn from our history about what works and makes the country strong.

While some things have changed in the labour needs in Canada, it remains true that we need people to work in a whole range of jobs, and that people have much more to offer than just their labour. We can only benefit from those contributions if people have a chance to make their permanent home among us, along with their families.

May 2014


For more information about Canada’s treatment of migrant workers: ccrweb.ca/migrant-workers