The Federal Government Temporary Foreign Workers Program exploded onto the front page of major newspapers, lit up social media boards and started conversations in the hallways of service organizations, on buses and in corner stores this past week. This was not anticipated.
For the last couple of years advocates for immigrants and refugees have been raising flags about the program and the potential for abuse. They have told the stories of workers that have been exploited by employers and unscrupulous recruiters. They have raised the concerns of vulnerable workers who though abused had little or no recourse to recover wages owed, to fight for decent housing or to have basic working conditions honored. These advocates have ensured their presence and voice at government consultations, have offered themselves as witnesses to media and have petitioned those with moral sway and appealed to those with political influence to add their voices to the public call for changes to be made to a program that changed the tenor of Canada's immigration program.
The Temporary Foreign Workers Program was a pilot project that was quietly made permanent on April 1, 2011. For decades Canada has had country to country agreements for agricultural workers. There has also been a ‘Foreign Domestic Movement' scheme, which has evolved over the decades to the Live-in Caregiver program. In addition, larger Corporations have been able to obtain temporary work visas for high skilled workers needing to work here in Canada for short period of time. But our immigration program for all intents and purposes was about permanency. It was about nation building. It was about our humanitarian traditions. As a country we wanted the brightest and the best. We wanted families reunited. But we also wanted those who were hurting, who had been persecuted, and who needed a place of safety and refuge. Our immigration program was about citizenship.
There has been a change in this balance, a shift in focus and intent of our immigration program. In 2012 there were over 338,189 Temporary Foreign Workers present in Canada. During that same year, the country received 257,515 permanent immigrants and refugees. There is something wrong with this picture.
The story of a major Canadian financial institution outsourcing high skilled work to cheaper labour markets while displacing Canadian workers who were expected to train these new workers who would be paid lower wages and who were brought to Canada through TFWP and Intra-Company Transfers (ICT) for training awakened Canadians to the existence of these programs for the first time. The juxtaposition of this news story with the recent announcement of the net loss of 55,000 full-time jobs from the economy played a role in the amount of attention this issue has received on Main Street. For the first time employers, government, and immigration advocates are not the only ones engaged in this debate. Not surprisingly the many angles to this issue has surfaced: the outsourcing of Canadian jobs, the depression of Canadian wages with employers allowed to pay TFWs 15%1 less than than Canadians in particular occupations in specific regions, the ongoing exploitation of foreign low skilled workers by employers and most worrying an emerging discourse steeped in xenophobic hyperbole of immigrants taking Canadian jobs. This last issue is what has many within our sector increasingly concerned about how this story is playing out.
The Federal government has been holding consultations on the TFWP across the country. Included in the consultation (in-person, tele-meetings) are employers, community agencies, labour, advocates and other levels of government. The consultation session that OCASI attended included all of the above groups and we came away heartened that labour, the Council and some corporations were speaking from the same page- wanting stricter penalties for employers who abused and exploited workers, a rethink of the program away from importing low-skilled labour that dumbs down wages, access to services for those that need it, increase in pathways to permanent residency and cost-sharing of the program between employers and government. There are no timelines however for when changes to the program can be expected and no stated intentions to make immigrant settlement and other community services available to temporary workers.
While we advocate for these changes and wait to see how the many recommendations made will be implemented, we cannot wait to address the public narrative that cast immigrants as villains. We cannot remain silent in the face of a discourse that holds them responsible for the decisions of Canadian employers to outsource work which throw Canadian residents (Canadian and immigrants) into unemployment and for government policy which allow employers to bring in temporary workers for jobs that are clearly permanent in many instances.
I don't often write on public policy in this space. But as a sector we must seize this moment to lift our voices in pushing back against a narrative that threatens to divide this country, even more than it already is, into them and us (Canadians versus Immigrants). Into those who belong and those who don't. We cannot ask our allies in labour and other sectors concerned about workers' rights, the economy and Canada's immigration program to be watchful of their discourse less it fuel a xenophobic backlash against immigrants while those of us charged with promoting the benefits of immigration, who often claim to speak with and for immigrants and refugees remain silent.
1 Up to 5% less than median wage for lower-skilled positions and up to 15% less than median wage for higher-skilled positions as long as there is a Canadian employee in the same workplace at the same pay. If there are no Canadians, there are ways to exempt.