The ugly underbelly revealed

Lana Payne
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My voice counts. A poignant reminder this Dec. 10 that advancing human rights is tied to our ability to participate in “effective and meaningful social dialogue” as is championed by the International Labour Organization (ILO).

But first, workers, including migrant workers, must be safe to use their voices.

International Human Rights Day has it roots in the 1948 signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which include the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, to peaceful assembly and association (to belong to a union).

This human rights day, the director general of the ILO reminded us that labour rights are indeed human rights and they are indispensable in securing economic growth and social progress. “Voices calling for respect of these rights must count.”

 And yet instead of progress, workers’ rights are under constant attack.

 In our country, we do not have much to crow about, for our own federal government is condoning the exploitation and abuse of migrant workers through its expansion of the temporary foreign worker program, an expansion that is now undermining the wages and working conditions of Canadian workers.

Every day, it seems, there is another news story of abuse, of employer exploitation, of violated human rights as the ugly underbelly of the temporary foreign worker program is exposed.

It is a program that is at the centrepiece of the Harper Conservative low-wage strategy for Canada. It is part of its kowtowing to employers dependent on cheap wages or wishing to suppress wages or halt the advancement of working conditions.

Do I think that every employer who uses the Conservative low-wage program is exploiting foreign workers? No.

But I do believe the federal program is deeply flawed and is now perhaps past the point where it can be fixed.

Somewhere along the way, the Harper Conservative forgot that Canada is a country build on immigration, not guest workers. (A term I use loosely.)

The temporary foreign worker program was originally intended to be a limited and selective program to meet short-term and regional labour or skills shortages.

It was supposed to be a last resort for employers. Instead, the lax rules and speedy application process have made the program incredibly accommodating for employers. Throw in a few “labour brokers” as they like to call themselves (in the bad old days we wouldn’t have been so nice with our terminology) and what we are left with is a program that doesn’t just encourage exploitation, but almost guarantees it.

Last week we learned of one labour broker charging Chinese workers $16,000 each in order to work in a B.C. coal mine — our 21st-century version of the Chinese Head tax.

The new faster application process for employers means they no longer have to really prove they can’t find Canadians to fill available jobs. After all, with a 10-day turnaround, there is no time to conduct a proper labour market investigation.

The number of temporary foreign workers in Canada continues to grow by leaps and bounds. New reports say there are nearly half a million temporary foreign workers or migrant workers currently employed in Canada. The number in our province has doubled since 2007.

But let’s be very clear. This program is not immigration. Canada used to be a country built on immigration. And we need immigration. We need immigrants to help to continue to build our country, to fill future labour market needs, to be a vibrant part of our communities.

But if the labour market problems facing our country are permanent, why are we filling the gaps with temporary workers, who are indebted to their employer in ways that even the most vulnerable Canadian workers are not?

After all, if you or I speak out or complain about how we are treated, we have recourse.

Migrant workers who are in our country at the invitation of their employer have no such rights. They, most often, fear speaking out, as doing so will see them sent back home.

 And now because of new rules from the Harper government, employers can pay these workers less than prevailing wage rates.

The law says pay them less. A 21st-century head tax for every migrant worker.

None of us, or very few of us, would be here today if our parents or grandparents entered Canada under the rules of the temporary foreign worker program.

Human rights and immigrant advocates say that the program ensures that migrant workers do not have the same rights and

protections as Canadian workers, creating an underclass of people.

Yes this year’s human rights theme is “my voice counts.” But workers, some of whom are the most vulnerable among us, must feel safe in order to use their voice. And as history shows us, that is not always the case.

I would think given our own

history in Newfoundland and Labrador, a history where our work was often exploited, we can perhaps understand how some of these workers may feel.

We must all remember that rights were never given. They have been won, through struggle and resistance. The rights we enjoy today must be fully extended to all those who work and live in our country, whether they are here temporarily or not.

Lana Payne is president of the

Newfoundland and Labrador Federation

of Labour. She can be reached by email at

Her column returns Dec. 29.

Organizations: International Labour Organization, Human Rights, Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour

Geographic location: Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador

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Recent comments

  • Aunt Lizzie
    December 19, 2012 - 10:34

    Lana, there is a big difference between what you call "the right to belong to a union" and the situation we have in Canada today, where workers in many sectors of the economy are forced to belong to unions. It takes Orwellian thinking to justify forcing someone to do something they don't want to do on the grounds that it is their right. Mandatory union membership has nothing to do with "freedom of association", because there is no freedom involved. Workers in Canada today are forced to give significant portions of their paycheque to unions in order to access jobs, and the unions use much of that money for political purposes that the paying members do not support. To add insult to injury, unions refuse to tell workers how they are spending the money the workers pay in dues. Unions do not serve workers anymore - workers are forced to serve unions.

  • Ed power
    December 17, 2012 - 15:37

    Welcome to the slippery slope.Twenty years from now people will wonder how and when Canada went from one being of the strongest economies in the world - with a well-trained and highly paid workforce - to being a low-wage, Third World sweatshop. Mark 2011 on your calendar, the year Canada's "New Government" started dismantling 100 years of progress and prosperity.