In 2013, for the first time in Canadian history, retirees will outnumber young people entering the workforce. Immigration is a sensible way to offset population shrinkage and economic decline and, for decades, federal programs have invited new workers to settle in Canada for precisely that reason.
But now, on the cusp of Canada’s “baby bust”, a “migrant workers boom” is underway. Since 2006, the number of “guest” workers has surpassed that of economic immigrants who can become permanent residents and ultimately Canadian citizens. This policy shift not only increases the vulnerability of these workers, but also undermines wages and conditions for all workers in Canada.
Here in B.C., the Employment Standards Act (ESA) is the only provincial legislative tool to protect non-unionized workers who cannot negotiate fair working conditions on their own behalf. But there is shockingly little enforcement of employment standards for migrant workers, despite the fact that they work in some of the province’s most dangerous and lowest-paid occupational sectors, including agriculture and mining. In practice, the ESA often establishes “paper rights” only, and it doesn’t cover overtime or holiday pay in sectors such as agriculture.
Compliance with occupational regulations is largely complaint driven. Because a temporary migrant worker’s status is tied to his or her employer, however, many pass up reporting instances of exploitation in order to avoid being repatriated or “blacklisted” from future work. Language barriers exacerbate this vulnerability. Such an employment system is ripe for abuse. Instances abound of recruiters illegally charging fees and employers providing unhealthy housing conditions or failing to deliver on-the-job safety equipment and training.
In advance of the B.C. election, we need to hear from the political parties about how they would strengthen and enforce employment law to protect all vulnerable workers, including migrants. Both the federal and provincial governments are allowing employers to use the temporary foreign worker program as a steady supply of lower paid workers whose circumstances leave them too vulnerable to exercise their rights. This not only affects these workers, but it erodes the bargaining power of everyone else who works in these sectors.
The B.C. Employment Standards Coalition has just released a comprehensive set of proposals to support better protection for migrant workers. As a starting point, the province ought to establish and maintain a transparent record of precisely where and when all migrant workers are employed. The coalition also calls for better enforcement of existing legislation. For example, it recommends establishing multi-authority compliance teams that would perform random worksite spot-checks in abusive sectors.
Citizenship alone, of course, is not a guarantor of well-being in Canada, as attested by the disproportionate occurrence of poverty among aboriginal and other marginalized communities, including recent immigrant farmworkers. Nonetheless, a route to permanent citizenship would resolve many systemic issues affecting migrant workers’ exploitation. For instance, immigrant workers, unlike temporary migrant workers, have the freedom to change employers, meaning they have a greater ability to exercise their rights in practice.
The Provincial Nominee Program (PNP) in B.C. only allows skilled workers, investors and entrepreneurs to access permanent immigrant status. As the United Food and Commercial Workers Union recommends in its 2010-11 report on the status of migrant workers in Canada, provinces such as B.C. should extend their PNP to include all migrant workers. Moreover, the PNP should not punish workers who are forced to leave exploitative employers while applying for permanent residency.
If the federal government continues to favour racialized and “flexible” migrant workers over immigration, the resulting workforce segregation will deepen social inequality. Indeed, since 1996 Canada’s income inequality has been increasing at a faster pace than the OECD average. Ensuring that everyone employed in Canada has the same rights and enforcement of basic labour standards is the only way to avoid a race to the bottom that puts downward pressure on welfare and wages for all workers in Canada.