It is a program that is rife with abuse. Its rules are regularly broken. And it was designed that way; legalized exploitation.
No one should be surprised that Canada’s temporary foreign worker program (TFWP) has been used and abused by employers to suppress the wages of Canadians. After all, the rules actually allow employers to pay migrant workers 15 per cent less than prevailing wage rates.
No one should be surprised that migrant workers are often afraid to speak out if their workplace rights are violated. Speaking out has drastic consequences for them, a return-trip home and lost wages for them and their families. This power dynamic makes them susceptible to all kinds of worker rights’ violations.
No one should be surprised that the fast-tracked, rubber-stamped application rules are now being used to kick Canadian workers out of their jobs.
And no one should be surprised that the program is seriously undermining Canada’s immigration system. The program is no longer about filling real and temporary labour shortages. The jobs are not even temporary in the vast majority of cases.
And sadly in Harper’s Canada no one is surprised. But that doesn’t make this right.
The fact is the temporary foreign worker program is a cheap-wage scheme, redesigned by the federal government to cater to employers. The same employers have an aversion to the economics of supply and demand except when it benefits them.
Last year, there were more temporary foreign workers in Canada than the entire annual intake of permanent newcomers or immigrants.
If there are labour market shortages, these mostly permanent labour requirements should be addressed with permanent newcomers. But that’s not what is happening. Instead, under the Harper Conservatives, a permanent underclass of workers is being created and used as pawns to undercut wages for everyone else. With unemployment high in many regions and cities of Canada, a valid question is: are these real labour shortages or just wage shortages?
Migrant workers are not to blame. Indeed they deserve our understanding and laws that protect their human rights.
The temporary foreign worker program is not just flawed, it is a complete failure — unless, of course, your objective is to drive down prevailing wages and create a more precarious job market. If that is the case, the program is wildly successful.
The Harper Conservatives say they are finally reviewing the program, but only after a series of high-profile cases hit the front news pages and riled a good portion of their political base.
Yet the problems with the giant loopholes in program are not new. They have been voiced repeatedly and for years. Labour and migrant worker groups have been quite outspoken about the deeply-flawed TFWP, and that was before the Harper government’s new rules that made it even easier for employers to avail of foreign workers.
Under the current rules, employers are still supposed to first attempt to hire or train available Canadians or permanent residents before availing of the temporary foreign worker program.
But the lack of real monitoring and repeated abuses prove that the federal government isn’t too concerned if employers are playing by the rules.
The size of the migrant workforce in Canada has tripled in the last decade. In our own province, the number of temporary foreign workers has doubled since 2007 from about 880 to over 1,800 in 2012.
In Alberta, where employers have been keen to drive down wages, there are over 100,000 unemployed workers and yet there are over 84,000 temporary foreign workers.
The problems with the program were exposed recently when one of Canada’s big banks attempted to replace 45 of their workers with temporary foreign workers. The salt in the wound? RBC wanted the workers to train in their own replacements.
In British Columbia, a Chinese mining company wanted to hire only Chinese workers brought in through the TFWP, listing as one of the requirements to work in the northern B.C. mine that the miners speak Mandarin.
Paying the price
Normally the rules of supply and demand would dictate higher wages, workplace training and/or upskilling to meet labour market needs. In a bizarre twist, employers have demanded the government intervene to help them suppress prevailing wage rates and increase the growing precariousness of Canada’s job market.
That intervention has been in the form of the temporary foreign worker program that is no longer about filling labour shortages. It has resulted in other forms of intervention too, including changes to employment insurance, Old Age Security, the federal fair wage act and collective bargaining.
At a time when corporate profits continue to soar, when corporate Canada sits on more than a half a trillion dollars in cash, you have to wonder why the government doesn’t stand up for Canadians and their ability to earn a decent wage.
Unfortunately, the government instead continues to support a system where the rules are broken every day. And just as unfortunate, no one is surprised that this government would do so.
Lana Payne is president of the
Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by email
Her column returns May 4.