Talk about being hoisted by your own petard.
The low-wage dependency created by the out-of-control expansion of the federal temporary foreign worker program (TFWP) — a result of the Harper’s government total capitulation to the cheap-wage lobbyists — has now become a huge political problem for an increasingly unpopular Conservative government.
The downward pressure on wages is one thing, but the number of cases of employers abusing the program and exploiting the workers who come to Canada under their care is mounting.
And now there are complaints from Canadian workers who have been thrown out of work and replaced with workers brought in under the program.
But this should surprise no one, least of all the federal government. It was warned, repeatedly, that this would be the exact outcome of its changes to the TFWP.
Actions that included a fast-track cheap-wage scheme with few to no rules, no safeguards and little monitoring.
An application process that was little more than a rubber stamp. A program that quickly became a first resort rather than a last resort for employers.
A program that saw a growth of over 925 per cent in the service sector between 2006-2012. A program that created the conditions for workers to be pitted against workers. A program that has undermined immigration.
Not to mention counsel from the likes of former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney, who warned against an “overreliance” on temporary workers in lower-skilled jobs.
“It is important over a reasonable time period to ensure that the market adjusts, and then there will be productivity and other adjustments that ensure that Canadians are paid more and that we are a more productive economy as a whole,” Mr. Carney said during his last days the job as Canada’s top banker.
But these warnings fell on deaf ears. The government was too busy delivering on its low-wage agenda which included increasing the retirement age, changes to employment insurance and the TFWP and a vicious attack on collective bargaining and union rights. All intended to deliver a downward pressure on wages for its business friends.
And now the bubble has burst.
Jason Kenney, the minister in charge of the TFWP, has called for a moratorium on any new temporary foreign workers for Canada’s service sector. The CEO of McDonald’s is outraged, but assured his staff and franchisees that Minister Kenney “gets it.”
I’m sure the minister does. But he has been hoisted on a petard of his government’s own making.
The cries from those now dependent on the federal temporary foreign worker program and the rationale behind the Harper government’s rapid expansion of it belies those free-market principles that have been shoved down the throats of working people since the days of Thatcherism.
Employer organizations have successfully pressured compliant governments to keep minimum wages low, while screaming that they can’t find enough cheap local labour to flip their burgers or pour their coffee or, better yet, complain about the work ethic of today’s young people. Anything to make the problem someone else’s.
They disowned their mantra about competition and innovation and modernizing long ago.
That’s only relevant when the issue is disciplining workers to maintain low expectations.
And perhaps in some far-flung regions of the country, there may actually be a real labour shortage versus a wage shortage and a refusal by some employers to consider innovative recruitment and retention practices.
But too many experts, including bank economists, have disputed the widespread labour shortage theory. Even the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) has called it bogus.
In a recent report, the PBO called out the Department of Finance for perpetuating falsehoods about the so-called Canadian labour shortage and skills gaps, saying there is little evidence that this is the case.
The PBO report on Canada’s labour market found median real wages have stagnated since the end of the recession, while average real wages have increased, meaning it is only higher-income earners who are seeing wage increases.
The Conservatives couldn’t have been too happy with a recent and explosive report by the right-wing C.D. Howe Institute that said the TFWP caused an increase in joblessness — especially in the Conservative heartland of Alberta and British Columbia.
The government has created a low-wage dependency. It has created the conditions for exploitation to occur where workers are totally dependent on their boss in order to stay in the country.
It has undermined immigration by creating a permanent underclass of workers with few rights and marginal access to permanent immigration.
The program’s critics have come from across the spectrum, including immigrants and their organizations. They would rather, like many of us, see a focus on permanent immigration rather than a disposable temporary labour force.
According to the Canadian Council for Refugees, the number of migrant workers in Canada has increased dramatically and, in 2008, for the first time, the number of TFWs exceeded the total number of permanent residents admitted through immigration.
By 2012, the gap had grown, with 338,189 migrant workers in that year compared to 257,515 new permanent residents.
According to the council, “migrant workers are especially vulnerable to exploitation and abuse because of their lack of status, their isolation and their lack of access to information on their rights, and because the Canadian and most provincial governments don't ensure monitoring of their workplaces.”
But perhaps the most egregious of the Harper government’s actions is the racist and xenophobic reaction that has resulted from all of this, but then the government was warned about that, too.
Lana Payne is the Atlantic director
for Unifor. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.
Her column returns May 17.