The new underclass
Who haven’t heard of immigration queue jumpers? The current federal government used this term when it shut down visa-free travel from the Czech Republic and Mexico. Federal officials blamed queue jumping refugee claimants. But if someone jumps the queue, it’s not refugees as much as it is temporary guest workers. And their biggest aider and abettor is Ottawa itself. Estimated 65,000 refugee claims were pending in 2008, but almost 192,519 foreigners came to Canada as temporary workers last year. A Toronto Star investigation revealed that many of them are vulnerable, abused, and prone to go underground, especially during a recession. The Canadian government wants to be in the labour supply business, but it’s not doing a good job.
The temp worker program lets employers select employees abroad if the federal labour officials certify a worker shortage in the employer’s industry. Today, most foreign workers go to farms, oil fields and into other low-skilled jobs, and many eventually end up in the underground economy. The current government in particular has let an unprecedented number of low-skilled migrants in Canada. Ottawa essentially acts as a giant recruitment agency that sizes up clients’ labour needs and fills them with people from foreign countries on condition that they go back home after two years. Foreign workers can’t switch jobs without the government’s permission. In Ontario and Alberta seasonal agricultural workers can’t join unions. And low-skilled workers can’t easily apply for permanent residence in Canada. After all, the idea is to bring in cyclical labour.
And cyclical labour they bring. Farms needs crop gatherers. Fast food joints need burger flippers. Energy companies need oil-sand workers. There are so many people in the world willing to work for much less than Canadians. Cheap labour, like any other cheap resource, can translate into lower costs across the production chain and lead to lower prices, economic growth, and general happiness. And the conventional wisdom goes that Canadians don’t want to do those jobs anyway. Temporary workers are also not supposed to strain our health care because they don’t grow old here. We have a constant supply of fresh, young, cheap labour thanks to the federal super recruiters in Ottawa. Right?
Wrong. The Toronto Star investigation revealed a widespread abuse of temporary foreign workers. Some employers take advantage of their weak bargaining power. Some employers refuse to pay their wages. Some pay much less than promised. Some fire workers without regard to their labour rights. Foreign workers often come from poor countries after borrowing thousands of dollars for the trip and middlemen’s fees. They feed their families who stayed behind. The law doesn’t let them switch employers easily. It’s not exactly a position of power in negotiating your job conditions. The Toronto Star report shows how many workers end up underground. They are the real queue jumpers, but who dare blame these abused people? Where they jump is not permanent residence in Canada but permanent limbo. They jump to a life of fear of authorities and working underground. Debts, hungry families overseas, and false hopes stop them from leaving.
They form a massive underclass—desperate and without rights—pushing many of them into crime. We have traditionally had two classes of people who lived in Canada: citizens and permanent residents. Their rights are similar but permanent residents lack some important rights that all citizens enjoy. Today we are adding a third class and even a fourth class way down the social ladder: the temporary workers with few rights and the temporary workers gone illegal—with almost no rights. Economic cycles come and go, but marginalized migrants will stay.
The government should get out of the labour supply business. If a job is low-paid, it doesn’t mean that Canadians don’t want to do it. It means the job must be better paid. And the market will take care of it without Ottawa’s bureaucrats crunching numbers in their spreadsheets. By importing massive cheap labour the federal government discourages higher productivity and wages. Unless a job involves killing people, there is hardly a qualified Canadian who wouldn’t take it for a fair wage. And if there are no takers, the job doesn’t belong in Canada.
The immigration policy should target the real issue instead of tampering with the labour market. And the real issue is the population growth. We desperately need more people in Canada, and the only realistic source is immigration. But we need immigrants with full rights, who are proud and secure and who understand and value the Canadian society. About 900,000 of potential permanent residents and future citizens are languishing in the huge backlog. In the meantime, Ottawa tempts hundreds of thousands of the world’s vulnerable to jump the queue and end up as marginalized migrants in Canada’s cities.