On May 16th, Michael Ferguson, the Canadian Auditor General, released a new report on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). Much of the media coverage on the report has missed some key points. Some coverage has also risked pitting migrant workers against unemployed and marginalized residents of Canada, particularly Indigenous peoples.
To be clear, migrant workers do not lower wages or steal jobs. Inadequate wages, unemployment and a lack of employment equity occur because of specific state and capitalist policy choices. The absence of standards or enforcement is a policy choice, too. In the case of low-wage streams of the TFWP, governments create policies that allow capitalists (aka employers) to access racialized, unfree and deportable workers from the Majority World. Consequently, workers have weak workplace bargaining power and can’t easily demand better wages and working conditions.
In response to the report and mainstream media coverage, we suggest the following points and questions :
- Growth of agricultural streams of the TFWP: While the number of migrant workers in other streams has decreased in recent years, agricultural migrant workers have skyrocketed
- e.g. in 2014, there were 47,477 migrant worker positions approved in Primary Agriculture — this is a rough proxy for the number of migrant farm workers. In 2015, there were 53,303 positions approved.
- Xenophobia: Media articles that frame migrant workers as stealing jobs from Canadians are dangerous, inaccurate and irresponsible. Worldwide, we have witnessed the alarming effects of fomenting xenophobic sentiment, and particularly in the wake of Brexit and the Trump election.
- Decrease in # of ‘low-skilled’ migrant workers: The report cites a massive decrease in the number of ‘low-skilled’ workers following Conservative Party reforms to the TFWP.
- What happened to these people? How many were deported, repatriated, are still here, transitioned to permanent residency, sought other forms of immigration status ie student, other occupation, refugee status, etc.?
- The role of CIC and CBSA: The report only examines Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), but neglects to consider the role of Citizenship and Immigration Canada and Canada Border Services Agency, both of which play a key role in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.
- Agricultural exceptionalism: There is no discussion on why there has not been any greater scrutiny of the agriculture sector.
- Workers are people: The report treats migrants as mere economic units, rather than human beings with individual and collective rights.
- Recruiters: The report speaks to employment recruitment efforts without examining the role of third party recruitment agencies in bringing migrant workers.
- Precaritization of jobs: The report provides commentary about the hiring of marginalized people without considering broader trends in the precaritization of employment (i.e. insecure, low-wage, unprotected and informal jobs with limited or no benefits)
- Timing and industry: The report does not examine the time spent by migrant workers in Canada. Specifically, the report examines Labour Market Impact Assessment approval without examining the labour attachment of these TFW’s to the industries they worked in.
- Four-and-Four: How did the Four-in-and-Four-Out Rule impact migrant workers in low-skill streams of the TFWP? How many were forced to return to their countries of origin, despite the eventual rescinding of this rule?
- EI: For those workers who collected EI, how many were able to access special or regular benefits? How many claimed benefits as a result of termination, abuse or job conflict?
- Members of the public and advocacy groups have requested EI data on the TFWP for years, only to be told that a breakdown does not exist. The report shows it does exist.
- “Risk-based approach”: The report discusses the use of a “risk-based approach” to workplace inspections. What does this look like, how was it developed and how will it be implemented?
- Fed-provincial: With respect to federal-provincial agreements on the TFWP, only one province has signed this with the federal government. Migrant workers must be actively included as part of deliberating on these agreements.
- Inspections: the numbers of inspections are shocking — 4,900 paper inspections and 173 onsite inspections, only 13 of which have been completed.
- Reprisals: What steps will the federal and provincial governments take to protect workers who are terminated or lose jobs because they assisted with investigations?
- Exploitation by design: Extreme cases of abuse are of course a problem, but the Auditor General doesn’t comment on how the Temporary Foreign Worker Program invites exploitation by design because of the fundamental structure of the program — driven by employers, with workers tied to their employer.
- Performance measurement strategy: The report states that ESDC has now developed a “performance measurement strategy” to assess the impact of the TFWP on the Canadian labour market.
- What are the metrics used for this measurement? Will this strategy ensure the rights of all workers are upheld, especially those of migrant workers?