Suspension of foreign workers puts them at risk of deportation
Over the past week, a scandal has emerged around McDonald’s and its alleged exploitation of the temporary foreign worker program. In response to the allegations and the public backlash that soon followed, the federal government and Employment and Social Development Minister Jason Kenney suspended the food services industry’s access to the program. The moratorium, which will remain in place pending a review of the latest accusations of abuse, is cause for concern.
Since the rise of the Conservative federal government in 2006, immigration has been redesigned with the principal goal of facilitating easy access for employers to migrants eager to come to Canada — what the Conservatives have called “just-in-time migration.” Although most temporary migration schemes preceded the rise of the federal Conservative majority, programs such as the live-in caregiver program, the seasonal agricultural workers program, the lowskilled stream and other provincial nominee programs have expanded with the current administration’s overhaul of federal immigration policy.
More recently, after news that the Royal Bank of Canada and coal mining companies abused the temporary foreign worker program, it has come under fire from politicians, activists and academics. While the tide of public opinion seems to be turning against the program, most Canadians appear to be upset for the wrong reasons. Indeed, much of the public response reflects misguided and misleading assumptions about the historical legacy of migrant workers in Canada.
At first, the moratorium on the food service industry’s access to temporary migrant workers might seem like an appropriate course of action. Unfortunately, this move actually punishes workers and puts them at a heightened risk of deportation. Immigrant advocacy groups such as Justice for Migrant Workers recognize that these shortsighted measures will fail unless migrant workers are given access to the same range of rights granted to citizens and permanent residents, including a pathway to permanent residence.
Temporary migrant workers employed within a lower-skilled category are not permitted to apply for permanent residency in Canada, thereby ensuring their disposability and “permanent temporariness.” What’s more, the TFWP operates according to a complaint-based system, which fails to account for the fear of reprisal and premature deportation faced by many migrant workers.
While the detrimental effect of the program on Canadian workers has received significant attention, very few are asking what the moratorium means for migrants themselves, including those abroad with pending applications, the extensive costs of which will likely never be recuperated.
The system of institutionalized precariousness in Canada must be changed. However, the moratorium is not the solution to the problems posed by the TFWP. “Open work permits, strengthened anti-reprisal measures, proactive enforcement of workplace rights are the immediate starting points of necessary reforms, not denying people the ability to work,” writes Justice for Migrant Workers in a recent press release.
Yet, the public discussion of this most recent in a series of controversies around this program has major blind spots. It appeals to a xenophobic sentiment, and fans the flames of anti-immigrant nationalism. The slogan might as well be: “They took our jobs!” Canadians should be used to fill ostensible “labour shortages,” or so the story goes.
If temporary migration has become permanent, then we need to shift the public discussion around migrant labour. Restrictionism is not the answer to the demographic challenges and so-called labour shortages facing many traditionally immigrant-receiving countries throughout the global north, including Canada.
Despite Canadian myths to the contrary, the exploitation of newcomers is a continuing thread in this country’s history. Canada, in the words of Donald Avery, has always been a “reluctant host.” Problems facing migrant workers today are part of a much longer history of exclusion towards those considered “foreign” others.
The Canadian federal government needs to provide long-term solutions to the problems associated with labour shortages, an aging population and the changing landscape of work and labour markets in a postindustrial economy. First and foremost, however, immigration should be viewed as a tool to offer hospitality to those in need of assistance and to welcome prospective citizens from around the globe.
Rather than exacerbating the entrenched rift between migrant and Canadian workers, Canadians should live up to their professed ideals of hospitality and responsibility. To even begin to do so, however, Canadians must first acknowledge our settler status. Only then will the hypocrisy of our attitude toward migrants be laid bare. We are, after all, being inhospitable guests in a land that is not ours.
Much of the public response reflects misguided assumptions