Debunking misconceptions about Canada’s temporary foreign worker programs

By Dr. Ethel Tungohan

Living in Edmonton, which has a high population of temporary foreign workers, I am aware that the city itself seems to be segmented into areas where migrant workers live, and areas where the rest of Edmonton resides. Although cities like Toronto and Vancouver have more temporary foreign workers than Edmonton, Edmonton’s comparatively smaller size makes such segregation more visible.  When thinking more about these issues, and pondering the different ways temporary foreign workers are treated differently in Edmonton (I’ve blogged before about ‘for rent’ ads that make it clear that certain apartments do not welcome temporary foreign workers), I’ve again come to the epiphany that in Canada, there is a migration hierarchy that determines how people are treated.  Migrant workers are close to the very bottom, arguably next to refugees and to asylum seekers. Despite the labour contributions migrants workers make to Canada, they are constantly harangued for ‘stealing’ jobs away from Canadians and are seen as benefiting from Canada’s ‘generosity’ in allowing them entry, never mind the fact that without these migrant workers, numerous Canadian industries will stagnate.

A lot of Canadians conveniently forget that before employers can hire workers from abroad, they have to provide proof, in the form of ‘labour market opinions,’ that they’ve actually made every effort to fill these jobs with Canadians first.  Long working hours, below average wages, and arduous, painstaking work mean that the jobs taken up by migrant workers are extremely unattractive to the average Canadian.  Hey, it’s not like being a food industry worker or a chicken catcher or a seasonal agricultural worker or an elderly folks caregiver or a child-rearer or a carpenter or a welder – among just a few industries that seek workers abroad – are jobs Canadians gravitate towards.  While there is a substantial unemployment rate, particularly among Canadian youth, it’s not like the skills that un – and under-employed Canadians have coincide with the skills that are needed; although there are programs that give Canadians special incentives to learn a trade or to acquire marketable skills, the number of people graduating from these programs is still not enough to fill in these employment gaps.

I admit that there are obvious flaws to Canada’s temporary foreign worker programs.  I am by no means an apologist for Canada’s policies towards temporary foreign workers.  In some ways, I am even persuaded by the claim that temporary foreign worker programs should be removed in their entirety.  I agree with activists who see temporary foreign worker programs as creating conditions of indentured servitude for migrant workers and believe that temporary foreign worker programs are a manifestation of contemporary imperialism.  Indeed, that there is an increasing number of people coming in through temporary worker programs and a decreasing number of people coming in through permanent immigration channels shows to me that Canada is turning its back to its roots as an immigrant-receiving society and turning towards a more restrictive guest worker model.  I am furious that temporary foreign workers are allowed to be paid less for doing the same work as other Canadians and am upset over the many egregious human rights abuses they face, as well as the social costs that working abroad has caused them and their families.  Perhaps in a future post, I will discuss these concerns in greater detail.

For now, though, I hope to debunk jingoistic perceptions about migrant workers. Migrant workers aren’t coming here in droves to usurp Canadians’ employment prospects. They can’t because of the regulations discussed earlier.  Migrant workers don’t overburden Canadian social services.  Numerous studies, such as those undertaken by political scientists Keith Banting and Will Kymlicka, actually show that when they can access social services (and note that a lot can’t), they use social services at the same rate as Canadians.  Finally, migrant workers aren’t a threat to the ‘Canadian way of life’.  They are members of our community. They live, work, and pay taxes in Canada. They go to the same shopping malls, eat in the same restaurants, go to the same churches.  They are a vital part of Canada.

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