Canadian Labour Congress says government changes victimizing migrant workers

Allowing employers to pay migrant workers 15 per cent less is a blatant effort to drive all wages down in everything from resource extraction and manufacturing to the services sector.

photo of migrant workers in a fieldOttawa (28 May 2012) - The federal government's new rules regarding migrant workers are yet another example of Ottawa's meddling in the labour market to favour employers and drive down wages, says the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). In an opinion editorial, published in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, the CLC stated the primary victims are migrant workers who lack access to many of the rights and protections accorded to Canadians and can be paid less. Beyond that, all workers and their communities are threatened by the government's low-wage strategy.

Ottawa has announced changes, effective immediately, to the temporary foreign workers' program (TFWP). Human Resources Minister Diane Finley has promised that she will speed up the process so that those employers who claim they need migrant workers will get their applications processed within 10 days.

Finley also said in a speech on April 25 that it will be acceptable for employers to pay migrant workers as much as 15 per cent below the average wage prevailing in the same region.

Canadians erroneously think of migrant workers as people who come to toil primarily in orchards and farmer's fields, and generally in exceptional circumstances.

In reality, there are now more than 300,000 migrant workers - triple the number from a decade ago. They accounted for almost 30 per cent of all net new jobs created in Canada between 2007 and 2011.

They are providing for their families at home by working in our homes, in abattoirs, hospitals, care homes, fish plants, fast food restaurants, in construction, and in the oil sands.

These workers do not have effective access to the same rights, protections and freedoms as other workers. There are well-documented stories of workplace mistreatment, substandard housing and unpaid overtime but many migrant workers won't risk registering complaints about their treatment.

Their status is tethered to their employer. Leaving a job means risking their legal status to work in Canada.

The government's claim that it closely monitors the system against employer abuse is difficult to believe. When former Auditor General Sheila Fraser reported on the TFWP in 2009, she indicated her concern that no one in the government was monitoring the program to assure that promises were being kept on "wages to be paid and accommodations to be provided."

The labour movement supports people coming to Canada as permanent immigrants to fill proven skills shortages. Our country has largely been built by people who came here, worked hard, put down roots and became citizens.

Our government, however, seems to favour importing workers who can be sent home far too easily, and who are limited to just four years of work here.

The much vaunted shortage of workers may also come as a surprise to those 1.4 million Canadians who are unemployed. All of the talk about skills shortages has still not resulted in increased investment in training that would assist unemployed workers to find good jobs. This lack of funding also means that workplace apprenticeships won't be available to young Canadian workers.

The government says that it believes in free enterprise and the laws of supply and demand but it doesn't act in that way. The heavy hand of the state was used to intervene on behalf of employers and against workers during negotiations at Air Canada and elsewhere in the past year.

The same anti-worker intervention is at play in changes being made to the TFWP. Allowing employers to pay migrant workers 15 per cent less is a blatant effort to drive all wages down in everything from resource extraction and manufacturing to the services sector.

The government appears intent on promoting a lose-lose competition between lowly-paid migrant workers and Canadians whose employment income has remained stagnant for a generation.

A far wiser policy would be one that focused on nation building through permanent immigration and a strategy to provide good jobs that support a prosperous and growing middle class.

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Canadian Labour Congress

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The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 340,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE

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