I wanted to share with our members a recent article featured in the Ottawa Citizen that talks about Canada’s working class. The author shares his thoughts about the Temporary Foreign Workers program in Canada and its implications for the Canadian working class.
With thousands of Canadian students looking for work and thousands of Canadian workers desperately seeking employment, bringing hundreds of thousands of temporary foreign workers into the country to fill jobs that Canadians need doesn’t seem to make much sense. Equally worrying are the questions about the treatment and working conditions of these foreign workers: Where is their protection in terms of the shifts being assigned? What about consideration of their family needs? What about fair wages and medical benefits?
The following article describes aspects of the Program and includes a number of observations that we should all be aware of and think about:
How the working class was forgotten
By Terry Glavin, Ottawa Citizen (April 30, 2014)
With May Day upon us — the worldwide workers’ tribute that began with a general strike for the eight-hour day in Chicago, in 1886 — right now seems the perfect time to ask out loud some reasonable questions that Canadian workers have been asking themselves quite a lot lately.
Here’s one to start with. How did it come to pass, exactly, that Canadian wage earners are having to contend with a federally administered, quasi-privatized national program that artificially suppresses their wages by providing employers with strategic and routine access to a massive pool of cheap, captive labour?
This degenerate state of affairs appears to have evolved quite quickly, and while pretty well nobody was really paying attention, and it isn’t some revolutionary wing of the Canadian Labour Congress that has been most diligently describing its mechanisms but rather such button-down outfits as the C.D. Howe Institute.
What is emerging from the evidence about the Temporary Foreign Workers program, which has been so much in the news lately, is a picture of something that looks less like a merely troubled national labour policy and more like a system of federally-administered labour racketeering. Thus the question: How is it that a program that was intended in 1973 as a last-resort regulatory ratchet to provide temporary fixes to short term bottlenecks in skilled-labour markets now looks like nothing so much as a legalized human trafficking operation?
The one thing that can be said without courting much controversy is that huge swaths of Canada’s economic landscape are now apparently dependent upon a permanent underclass of perpetually “temporary” non-citizens. This is what the Canadian Federation of Independent Business is telling us, however inadvertently. This is what B.C. Premier Christy Clark has confessed about her pipedreams of solvency in a liquid-natural-gas boom. This is also what the lobby group Restaurants Canada was shouting about last week.
Sectoral mayhem and shutdowns and layoffs are what we are told should be the result of Employment Minister Jason Kenney’s timid hiatus in the transformation of Canada’s restaurant industry into a vast network of fast-food chains staffed by indentured foreign labourers. “The restaurants are going to fall apart,” McDonald’s franchisees have been overheard to cry, as though levelling the industry field to the advantage of businesses that pay decent wages and benefits would be, you know, a bad thing.
Just how many guest workers are we talking about anyway? The numbers appear to be far, far larger than is generally understood.
There were 338,000 people in Canada at the sufferance of the Temporary Foreign Workers program at the beginning of last year. When you add in other non-citizens working or at least entitled to work, including farm labourers, nannies, foreign students, “Experience Canada” exchange students and so on, you’ll find that you’re looking at more than 600,000 people whose subservience and obsequiousness is disciplined on pain of deportation.
This is a number of people that exceeds the size of the entire labour force of Saskatchewan, and its existence inside Canada’s already underemployed working class will have implications that should not require an economics degree to comprehend. The C.D. Howe Institute study that caused such a hubbub last week found that in Alberta and British Columbia, an influx of temporary workers between 2007 and 2010 was the cause of an acceleration in unemployment rates of about 3.9 percentage points.
It should come as no surprise, then, that after 40 years and several iterations, that for whatever marginal good the Temporary Foreign Workers program may or may not still do it is widely and not unreasonably seen to pick the pockets of Canadian wage-earners and to swindle all those decent and upstanding employers in this country whose profits do not depend on grinding the faces of the poor.
But what is surprising is that it all seems to have come out of nowhere. Liberal MP John McCallum calls it a “Conservative mess,” but this conveniently draws attention away from the program’s crucial turning point from tolerable regulatory nuisance to back stairs hiring-hall arrangement, which occurred during Jean Chrétien’s tenure, in 2002, with the advent of the helpfully self-descriptive Pilot Project for Hiring Foreign Workers in Occupations that Require Lower Levels of Formal Training.
Suddenly, the number of temporary foreign workers in Canada quadrupled, and the proportion of Canadian workers locked into what Ottawa calls National Occupational Classification D (which the rest of us recognize as the country’s minimum-wage ghetto) grew from one per cent to 8.8 per cent.
The fact that the Temporary Foreign Worker program is now out of control is made only more obvious by a cursory review of all the things Employment Minister Jason Kenney has attempted to rein it in. Heftier fines for system abusers, the creation of a public “blacklist” for grifters, elimination of provisions that allowed employers to pay foreign workers less than prevailing rates, hikes in application fees — and yet still, all these things have made practically no difference to the program’s overall effect.
There is a parallel history that might shed some light on why it is that everybody seems to have been caught off guard by it all, and it involves a clear pattern over the past quarter of a century or so, in which the Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats have each engaged in obsessive devotions to that most famous of all Rorschach inkblots, the “middle-class.”
It is an experiment that might not meet the tests of the Canada Evidence Act but it is nonetheless instructive that a search of Parliament’s database of Hansard records will show that the last time the mere existence of Canada’s working class warranted so much as a casual notation as a keyword in Commons debates was on Oct. 27, 2006. It came as a kind of boast, uttered by Conservative MP Bradley Trost (Saskatoon — Humboldt, CPC), relating to federal tax cuts and tax credits: “They are aimed at working class Canadians.”
This appears to be the one and only time the working class shows up in the House of Commons debates’ keyword index since 1994. And no, pro-forma mentions of “ordinary working Canadians” or wise guy references to such imaginary cross-bred hybrids as “middle-income workers” don’t count.
Over this same 20-year-period, burnt offerings laid before the graven image of that spectral cultural phylum called the “middle class” occurred in no fewer than 206 House of Commons sessions, with 93 of these events occurring during the current, 41st session of Parliament, which began its proceedings on June 2, 2011. The traffic in hosannas to the middle class has been especially busy these past few days, too, owing to a New York Times report that seemed to indicate that whatever the middle class is, its Canadian version seems to be flourishing, or not, depending on which sort of economist you prefer.
But there is a working class in Canada, and it is fitting, being the occasion of May Day, the original international workers’ day, to notice that circumstances do suggest that the system is rather rigged, and it is worth wondering whether Canada’s actually-existing working class can lay a convincing claim upon a single true and loyal friend in the House of Commons.
Terry Glavin is an author and journalist whose latest book is Come from the Shadows.