Guest Commentary - Canada’s migration policies: for cheap labour, against human freedom | National Union of Public and General Employees

Guest Commentary - Canada’s migration policies: for cheap labour, against human freedom

York University professor disputes the positive assessment of Canada’s migration policies in the UN Human Development Report 2009

by Ananya Mukherjee-Reed

Ananya Mukherjee-ReedThe UN Development Program (UNDP)’s Human Development Report (2009) entitled Overcoming barriers: Human mobility and development begins with the story of Juan, a Mexican migrant worker in Canada:

Consider Juan. Born into a poor family in rural Mexico, his family struggled to pay for his health care and education. At the age of 12, he dropped out of school to help support his family. Six years later, Juan followed his uncle to Canada in pursuit of higher wages and better opportunities. .. Juan was selected to work temporarily in Canada, earned the right to stay and eventually became an entrepreneur whose business now employs native-born Canadians. This is just one case out of millions of people every year who find new opportunities and freedoms by migrating, benefiting themselves as well as their areas of origin and destination (HDR 2009: 2; emphasis mine).

Could the irony be more profound? As recently as June 2008, a study by the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), a leading progressive think tank, concluded that migrants under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) are in ‘indentured servitude’.

For years, unions and activists have documented how this program enriches Canada’s prosperous agribusiness community at the cost of workers who literally put food on Canada’s tables. Canadian policy also keeps a substantial part of migrants’ earnings in Canada. In 2001, for example, they paid more than $9.5 million in taxes, $3.4 million in employment insurance, and spent more than $82 million in Canada.

The suggestion that ‘millions of people every year’ ‘find new opportunities and freedoms by migrating’ is far from reality. The right to residency is not available to any significant proportion of the thousands of migrant workers. Who, and under what conditions obtains this right is arbitrary and the process lacks transparency. It is ‘earned’ at huge costs. For example, the Live in Care Giver Program (LCP), is one of the few programs where the workers have won this right after years of struggle. Then why are the caregivers demanding that the program be scrapped?

The institutionalization of fear

One of the key features of the current policy towards migrant workers is the institutionalized administration of fear. This is done either through the threat of deportation, or the denial of re-entry, not being able to ‘earn’ the right to stay, or worse still, through new programs which pit one pool of dispossessed workers against another. An example is the recently created Temporary Foreign Workers Program for Occupations Requiring Lower Levels of Formal Training (TFWP), which offers even less protection to foreign workers.

 A key element in this administration of fear is the denial of the rights to unionization or any kind of collective bargaining. This is why the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is leading a Shameful Secret campaign against the Canadian government’s refusal to ratify three core conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO). These are the conventions on Forced Labour; the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining; and Minimum Age.

Right now, a landmark case Fraser v. Attorney General of Ontario is being adjudicated by the Supreme Court of Canada. Led by the UCFW and supported by several others labor rights organizations, it seeks to restore the rights of agricultural workers to unionize – a right that was stripped by the Harris government in 1995.

Undercutting labour rights

Why are there such arduous struggles over rights for migrants in a country with a relatively better framework of labour rights?

The reason is simple: because migrant worker schemes enable employers to undercut hard-won labour rights - by exploiting the poverty of another group of workers. If migrant workers ‘cost’ the same and impose the same obligations as ‘natives’ then the very reason for employing them disappears. So the choice for the poor is either to suffer in poverty at home or to accept injustice where they move to.

It is, of course, worse for women. The Report’s claim that migration may liberate women from traditional roles is hardly substantiated when one examines the conditions under which migrant women work. In an excellent study by Preibisch and Grez, we hear many voices of Mexican women migrants in Canada’s farms. Upon migration, they enter yet another world of discrimination, another set of patriarchal norms, aggravated by dislocation and the pain of separation. As the women appear painfully aware, their value lies precisely in their ‘choice’ – as it were, to devalue themselves: as women and as workers. It is in this devaluation lies the employers’ motivation to employ them.

Assessing the Report

Let us think about the Report’s two main claims in light of the above. The first is that migration is (or should be) a basic human freedom – as opposed to slavery which symbolized the ultimate and unacceptable ‘unfreedom’. Second, given the level of inequalities in the world today, the poorest have the most to gain from migration. These gains can be appropriately realized by lowering the barriers to migration and improving the treatment of migrants. Canada, according to the Report, is a model to endorse.

Does Canada endorse the vision of migration as a basic human freedom?

As everywhere else, the plight of migrant workers in Canada is the consequence of a coherent set of policies to ensure a steady supply of cheap labour. Corporations and private businesses, small and large, domestic and international, are the primary beneficiaries of this highly exploitative policy, as are some privileged social classes. Interestingly, the words ‘corporations’ or ‘agribusiness’ do not even appear in the Report. It does make several references, though, to ‘employers’ and their misbehaviour, but nothing that would remotely suggest how existing policy regimes contribute to the systematic exploitation of migrant labour.

At issue here is an extreme inequality of power, between governments and businesses on the one hand, and a huge pool of dispossessed labour on the other. This has two consequences. First, it gives rise to policy regimes which legitimize interests of the powerful who can stratify and exploit workers using class, race, gender, ethnicity, nationality or any such criteria. Second, it allows flagrant violation of migrants’ rights to go unpunished.

A matter of choice, and not of necessity

‘Better policy’ can emerge only if these unequal power relations are fundamentally challenged, just as various movements are attempting to do. More importantly, it is necessary to ensure that migration is truly a matter of choice, and not of necessity. This will entail serious restructuring of global capitalism and the various state-business alliances on which it rests. ‘Human development’ in this framework must also include a real choice not to migrate: the freedom not to be forced to become a ‘dollar parent’ in a faraway land.
Thousands of Filipino women in the migrant Mecca of Canada are struggling precisely for this ‘freedom’. Can their struggle succeed? Yes it can, but only when we address the inequality and dispossession that forces migration.

What the Report suggests are strategies that can help individuals cope with such inequality. However, the kind of inequality we have today cannot be overcome one individual at a time; as the stories of migrants show, such individual ‘solutions’ might reinforce the processes that produce the inequality in the first place.


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

Ananya Mukherjee-Reed is an Associate Professor of Political Science and International Development Studies. She is also Director of the International Secretariat for Human Development and Director of South Asian Studies