Saturday, April 26, 2014

Basically slave labour

Oftentimes, news coming from the establishment is not really as encouraging as they sound or as good as they intend to be.
Canada’s Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander recently announced that Canada has issued more than 47,000 visitor visas to Filipino visitors in 2013, an increase of 57 percent since 2006 and a record high for the Philippines. But what the total number of visitors doesn’t indicate is that it is the Philippines’ latest contribution to modern-day slavery in Canada.
Since 2006, the number of temporary foreign workers in Canada has ballooned to over half a million workers toiling in jobs where they are paid wages lower than the legal minimum, where working conditions are below labour standards, and where there is little or no opportunity to transition to permanent residency and citizenship. Who would have thought that working overseas, especially in Canada, wasn’t a better alternative to staying home?
McDonald's Canada has announced putting its temporary foreign worker program
on hold. McDonald’s got bad publicity recently over allegations in Edmonton that
it was charging temporary foreign workers too much for rent. Media reports also
revealed that local Canadian workers at three Victoria, B.C. locations were denied
shifts in favour of workers hired under the TFW program. Photo by Associated Press.

There is now widespread criticism that Canada’s temporary foreign workers program is either not working or is being abused contrary to its original purpose. Under the program, employers are allowed to bring foreign workers for a specified duration to fill in labour shortages. These workers are bound to their employers and may not quit for any reason or seek other employment. Essentially, the temporary foreign workers program is a stop-gap measure to address labour shortages but its current use has morphed into something businesses have exploited as a quick fix for the sake of profit.
As early as 2011 I started posting blogs that were highly critical of Canada’s temporary workers program and the government’s new limit of four years for visas granted to these temporary visitors, denying them the opportunity of permanent residence. Those were views drawn out from my own experience as a lawyer working with immigrants and refugees. In 1992 when the Live-in-Caregiver Program was introduced, also by nature a temporary or contractual work arrangement except for the path to citizenship for successful participants and for which Filipino nannies have been improperly stereotyped as the program’s main market, the government’s temporary foreign workers program has already elicited disapproval from policy and human rights advocates and labour unions as a thinly disguised version of indentured servitude.
Everyone would recall that historic indentured slavery started out as temporary slavery for white people. Wealthy individuals and businesses paid for the passage of persons in Britain or Europe who wanted to immigrate to the colonies at that time. In return, they had to work for their sponsor as payment for their passage for a set number of years. Since the indentured servant could not leave or quit, the practice was a little better than slavery. In some ways, it was even worse because their employers would sometimes work them to death.
Indentured servants were exploited as cheap labour and were severely maltreated, a highly abusive situation being replicated in the plight of today’s forced migration of temporary foreign workers in Canada.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) has reported that foreign workers from Belize have accused McDonald’s Canada in Alberta and British Columbia of treating them like slaves by effectively forcing them to live in a shared apartment. McDonald’s would then deduct almost half the workers’ take-home pay as rent. Records showed that the workers made $11 an hour working at various McDonald’s locations and the company took $289 from their pay for rent, bi-weekly. The workers were left with a take-home pay each of roughly $350 for the same pay period.
Also just recently, the Alberta Federation of Labour claimed 65 oil-sand contractors were laid off and replaced by low-paid workers from Croatia. There were also prior complaints from Chinese workers who were brought in by a British Columbia coal mine, Royal Bank technical staffers laid off in an apparent outsourcing movement, and more than one fast-food restaurant has been accused of replacing staff with lower-paid foreign workers.
A Tim Horton’s franchise in Fernie, British Columbia, has also been accused by two Filipino workers who alleged that the store owner cheated them out of overtime pay by driving them to the bank to cash their paycheques and then taking a cut. In Kelowna, an 18-year-old high school student said she saw her hours at a local Dairy Queen franchise cut dramatically shortly after foreign workers arrived from the Philippines. Workers in British Columbia, ranging from seasoned professionals to teenage fast-food employees, are complaining about being dumped in favour of non-residents.
These temporary foreign workers are spread all over Canada, and exploited because they are cheap and low maintenance. The western provinces have seen the largest influx. Of the 202,000 temporary foreign workers who entered Canada in 2012, British Columbia had 28,000 TFWs in 2012, with half of them working in Vancouver, doing everything from flipping burgers to performing manual labour.
All these recent incidents illustrate that Canada’s temporary foreign workers program is in fact not working as designed by policy-makers in Ottawa, and in many instances, the program is being abused by a number of Canadian companies. Instead of addressing legitimate labour shortages so companies could hire skilled workers when no appropriate Canadian applicants were available, the program has become a convenient tool for some business companies to abuse and exploit their workers.

NDP MLA Mable Elmore (centre) and Jane Ordinario of Migrante BC (right) host a
 panel  to advocate for the rights of temporary foreign workers and to speak out against
 anti-immigrant sentiment. Photograph by Jenelle Schneider (Vancouver Sun). Click
 to view "Foreign workers facing backlash."
While the program clearly benefits some Canadian businesses, it must also benefit the employees if the program were to stay as ethically legitimate. Arguably there is some merit if the purpose was to bring people from impoverished countries and allow them to work for some time, to enable them to save and return home with hard-earned cash. However, according to the CBC report, it looks like these workers will go home almost empty-handed.
Unlike the historic indentured servants who were promised freedom and citizenship if they survived their servitude, participants in Canada’s current temporary foreign workers program are not. When their employment is done, they must go back to their country of origin. They can re-apply to return to Canada only after four years have elapsed.
What is guaranteed by the Conservative majority in government is the perpetuation of its policy of privatizing immigration, i.e., allowing the private sector to dictate upon government who to allow to immigrate and for how long. The much-hyped Expression of Interest program borrowed from New Zealand and Australia, and dubbed by the feds as Express Entry, will be launched in 2015 and this is exactly what the private sector wants.
Two years ago, immigration applications received prior to 2008 were cancelled by the government, effectively wiping out 280,000 applications from the backlog. Today, Canada Immigration is blowing its own trumpet that Express Entry will lead to a faster and more flexible economic immigration system that will address Canada’s economic and labour market needs.
Starting May 1, 2014, the government will implement new caps for the Federal Skilled Worker Program (FSWP), Federal Skilled Trades Program (FSTP) and Canadian Experience Class (CEC), which they believe will ensure a steady supply of skilled workers who are settling in Canada permanently and helping to supplement the Canadian workforce in areas where there are skills shortages. By the end of 2014, Canada Immigration expects this pool of candidates to be made available to employers who can screen and cherry pick the workers they would allow to immigrate.
Express Entry is essentially a government off-loading of public policy to private sector interests, which will allow employers to define Canadian immigration policy. The trend toward privatization has been started with the shift to temporary foreign workers, and now the focus is on the skilled and experienced categories of immigrants.
Granting that the involvement of employers can help reduce skill mismatches between local economic needs and immigration quotas set by Canada Immigration, there is a clear and present danger in allowing employers alone to determine the workers they are willing to admit because they are intuitively looking for average workers, not skilled labour. In other words, the Harper government’s modernization of the Canadian immigration process will simply continue its policy of bringing foreign workers for hotels, fast food outlets, janitorial services and factories – typical Canadian jobs, albeit low-paying, which ordinary Canadian citizens are not willing to do.
As I have written in an earlier blog on the subject last November 2012, “the reliance on temporary foreign workers who are selected by employers based on their own short-term interests is headed towards a very troubling path. It is a policy that augurs well for the normalization of migrant labour in Canada, but doesn’t bode well for diversity, appalling for the workplace, and could potentially turn immigration into a source of social tension.”
In “The End of Immigration,” a documentary that examines the temporary foreign workers program in Canada, labour rights advocate Yessy Byl explained: “We have a system that is inherently engendering exploitation – it’s just inevitable. We set up a group of people who are brought to Canada to work, so we’ve got basically slave labour, because [the temporary workers] can’t work legally somewhere else.”

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