By Dan Darrah
“Those dreams of staying in Canada are now gone,” said Marco Lucinao of migrant work advocacy group Migrante Alberta. The April 1, 2015 deadline for citizenship sent scores of temporary foreign workers back to their home countries.
The Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW) program was instituted in 1973 as a way to alleviate temporary labour shortages in high-skilled professions such as medicine. This resulted in an inflow of migrant physicians and other specialists.
In 2002, the Liberal government under Jean Chretien extended the program to include low-skilled workers which ballooned the amount of TFWs. The Conservatives streamlined applications to the program in 2006, which saw another boom in the amount of temporary workers employed in the country.
By 2014, investigations noted that TFWs began to dominate service-sector jobs. The program came under enormous scrutiny for depressing wages and creating a two-tier labour market – a “ghettoization” of migrant workers, as characterized by the Alberta Federation of Labour – as well as exploitation of the workers due lacking mobility rights to move from job-to-job and relying on employer housing, as stipulated by the program’s policy.
Migrante Alberta asserted that temporary live-in caregivers from the Philippines “have been subject to utter neglect and abuses, sexual harassment, discrimination, contract violation or substitution, [and] lack of basic services.”
Moreover, many vulnerable TFWs have slipped through the cracks of the program, exposing even worse problems than were prevalent before. Most shocking was the story of Maria Victoria Venancio. She was a TFW who was hit by a car on her way to work, leaving her paralyzed. Because she couldn’t work, she was ineligible to have her work visa renewed, and was denied healthcare coverage. All the government had to say to her was, “we feel bad.”
As temporary workers began outpacing immigration in British Columbia, a large consensus among the labour movement was reached about the TFW program: it’s not immigration, it’s exploitation under the guise of filling “labour shortages.”
While the program did offer a way for temporary workers to apply for permanent citizenship, as many as 16,000 were caught in bureaucratic hurdles and had to return home due to the April 1 deadline. The deadline was a part of a series of “reforms” that ensured that Canadians continued to have the “first crack” at jobs, as MP Pierre Polievere explained. It also gave the Canadian Border Services Agency a mandate to conduct workplace raids and unfair inspections.
Considering the future of TFWs after they have done their time working – in everything from Alberta’s oil fields to McDonald’s restaurants – is crucial. Many will build new relationships or be reunified with relatives, and others will be providing for their families back home. Many vulnerable view the program as a vehicle out of poverty. We need to listen to their voices.
So while the program is exploitative and should be abolished in duality with improvements to the immigration system, the temporary workers themselves deserve to stay. They deserve the extension needed to gain permanent residence.
The Alberta-based Temporary Foreign Workers Support Coalition epitomized this sentiment in their phrase “good enough to work, good enough to stay.”
But the major political parties have dragged their feet on offering up significant reforms. Even major unions have gone quiet on the issue, despite being in an election cycle. So pressure only from the top – including the Canadian Labour Congress and provincial labour federations as well – may not be enough to end or significantly reform the program. If rank-and-file members of the Canadian labour movement involve themselves in the struggles of TFWs, a mutually beneficial solidarity is possible.
A unified approach can help push for TFWs to stay, the eventual abolishment of the program, a diversification of union and labour politics, and increasing the numbers who are pushing for other reforms, like the fight for a $15 minimum wage. It can also serve to deconstruct some of the racism that rears its head in the Canadian labour movement – the xenophobic “immigrants are taking Canadian jobs’ narrative” – which only serves corporate power by dividing the labour movement.
The topic of the TFW program has since dissipated out of the public spotlight, but should be made relevant by the labour movement at large. While the Liberals and the New Democrats have claimed to repeal the anti-labour legislation Bill C-525 and Bill C-377, neither have mentioned any sweeping reforms to the program other than performing “reviews” on the its structure. As such, organizations such as Migrante Alberta and the Temporary Foreign Workers Support Coalition toil to keep the issue relevant.
So while the future of the program is hard to calculate, temporary foreign workers will continue to work precariously – contributing to both the economic and social capital of Canada – without the security of knowing for sure whether it will last forever.