Solidarity with foreign and migrant workers: Interviews with Syed Hussan and Caitlin Craven
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By Andrew Stevens
Once again, migrant and foreign workers in Canada are being victimized by the federal government’s mismanagement of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) and immigration policy generally. But activists and foreign workers across the country refuse to remain silent about this ongoing injustice.
Demonstrations in seven Canadian cities over the past three weeks were organized in opposition to the April 1, 2015 deportation deadline faced by low-skill workers in the TFWP (including workers in agriculture), the Live-In Caregiver Program, and the Caregiver stream. By some estimates approximately 70,000 foreign workers are now subject to this deadline.
The 4 and 4
Titled the 4 and 4 rule, changes to these various programs in 2011 slapped a four-year limit on the closed work-permit held by foreign workers. These workers were faced with either returning to their home country, and being banned from reapplying for another four years, or becoming permanent residents. But because provincial nominee programs only permit a limited number of low-skill entries, these already precarious workers are confronting serious structural barriers to residency. In 2012, roughly 48 percent of all foreign workers made the transition to permanent resident.
April 1 is a reminder of the precarious status these, and other low-wage workers inhabit. And while they pay taxes, contribute to employment insurance and CPP, they are purposefully marginalized by programs designed to maintain this revolving door of low-skill, foreign labour. According to Justice for Migrant Workers spokesperson, Chris Ramsaroop, the deadline treats temporary workers as “disposable and expendable”, despite the “contributions that migrant workers have made toward building our communities.”
An unsympathetic Minister of Employment, Pierre Poilievre, remarked that the deadline has been known for a long time and that the purpose of the “program is for it to be temporary. That’s why they’re called temporary foreign workers.” Business should raise wages and hire locals if they are faced with labour shortages, Poilievre insisted. These are tough words coming from a Conservative, whose government has overseen the hemorrhaging of good paying manufacturing jobs and the collapse of several retailing giants in Canada. Poilievre’s comments are unlikely to motivate stewards of the country’s low-wage economy, namely the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which have criticized the government for making it more expensive for the food service and accommodation industries to access foreign labour.
Clearly the “Canadians First” moniker that now defines the TFWP is nothing but a smokescreen for a broader immigration policy that favours temporary workers over permanent residency and immigration. Alberta Federation of Labour President, Gil McGowan has made it clear that Canada does not need “an exploitative” foreign worker program. “What we need is real immigration”, McGowin said, as well as “better training – both in our schools and from employers – so that Canadians can benefit from the opportunities offers in our national and regional labour markets.”
Fighting the 4 and 4
To provide a background to the April 1 deadline, and the political and economic context that provides a basis for the TFWP, RankandFile.ca spoke with Syed Hussan, Coordinator with the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, about the national day of action against migrant and foreign worker deportation. In the interview, Hussan addresses the challenges of working through the permanent residency system, which provides limited opportunities to a largely racialized, low-wage, temporary foreign labour force. Ultimately, he says, “it’s a revolving door immigration system” where new workers are brought in when employers, and the Canadian economy, are done with the existing foreign workforce. The temporary system, which is a majority of the immigration system Hussan insists, is “designed to force people into more and more precarious jobs, with fewer and fewer rights because provincial laws specifically exclude or do not provide support networks for folks without permanent residency.”
Hussan also makes clear the four key demands of the No 4 and 4 Campaign, which involves a coalition of social justice organizations from across the country. These are:
- An end to the 4 and 4 rule and other arbitrary limits on work permits;
- Workers who are already in the country should have access to social and labour entitlements and protections;
- Workers who are already in the country should get permanent residency;
- Workers who come in the future should get permanent residency on immediately upon arrival.
Local activists and union members, Hussan argues, need to become spokespeople for migrant and foreign worker rights. It’s also important to dispel the myth that foreign workers are responsible for depressing wages and causing unemployment in Canada. “If somehow all of these workers were somehow deported”, he says, “that would still leave some 1.2 million unemployed Canadians. People have lost sight of what the real problem is.” We need to focus on the reality that unemployment and the rise of precarious work is affecting all workers, and that migrant workers are not to blame.
In our second interview, RankandFile.ca spoke with Cailtin Craven, an activist with Sanctuary City Hamilton. In 2014, Hamilton became the second Canadian city to declare itself a “sanctuary city.” “What it means”, Craven says, “is that the city has made a commitment that all city services will be accessible to everyone regardless of their immigration status, as long as they live in Hamilton. No one can ask about your immigration status… and no one should deny you services based on your immigration status.” Hamilton has also committed to lobby the provincial and federal governments to address the problems with the immigration system that are being experienced today. However, she cautions, the policy is there but “not all services are putting the policy into practice”.
Since the 2014 victory, the Sanctuary City coalition has focused on migrant worker justice solidarity, as well as working to ensure that the policy is properly enforced. Sanctuary City has also taken steps to lend assistance to migrant workers facing deportation, as well as a support network for employees confronting exploitation in their workplaces. Part of this struggle involves expanding the right to permanent residency. As Craven argues, “working in this country should not come without permanent status.”
To find out more about the Campaign Against the 4 Year Limit on Migrant workers, visit the No 4 and 4 tumblr site. Fact sheets and resources for migrant workers facing deportation, allies, and additional background information can be found here.