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Canada’s growing temporary workforce: a worrying trend

Olivia Chow

Denying workers a route to permanent residency makes them more vulnerable to abuse.

Does Canada treat Mexicans arriving to Canada as nation builders or as economic units? Judging by the number of temporary foreign workers coming from Mexico and other Latin American and Caribbean countries and the number of Canadian residents from these countries deported each year, it is clear that the Canadian government is mostly treating migrants as economic units and not as nation builders.

In 2010, 23,375 migrant farm workers from Jamaica, Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and eastern Caribbean states came to Canada under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. As an illustration of the growth of temporary work requests, last year 116,120 Mexicans applied as temporary foreign workers to come to Canada, a 347.7 per cent increase over 2005.

These figures are part of a trend in the last six years that encourages employers to hire temporary foreign workers instead of paying Canadians a living wage. In 2009, 178,478 temporary migrant workers arrived in Canada, compared to only 153,498 permanent, economic class immigrants.

Even though Mexico is Canada’s second-largest source country for temporary foreign workers, not a single Latin American country is among Canada’s top 10 providers of permanent residents. Most migrant workers won’t qualify under the present rules to come as permanent residents as they either lack the funds to qualify as an entrepreneur, or lack the skills and education needed to come as economic immigrants.

A program established several years ago called the Experience Class gives migrant workers the illusion of being able to obtain landed immigrant status in Canada. But the program’s design excludes most migrants from such opportunities. Only those with very highly specialized skills are allowed to stay in Canada permanently, and in 2009 there were only 2,544 successful applicants among the tens of thousands of temporary workers and students in Canada.

For many who seek a better income to support their families, the only option is to travel north as temporary migrant workers. Many want to bring their families to Canada, but under the present immigration system they have little chance of succeeding.

Even in the case of Mexico, Canada’s North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) partner, the Canadian government is sending out unwelcoming signals by imposing a visa for anyone who wants to visit Canada.

And while Canada is in desperate need of young families, children of temporary foreign workers are discouraged from joining or visiting their parents.

If Canada is truly welcoming of young families, those who have been in Canada for more than five years, have no criminal record and are gainfully employed should be allowed to stay here permanently. Instead, Canada spends an exorbitant amount of money tracking down residents with precarious immigration status, arresting and detaining them, dragging them through the court system and then deporting them. Even those who have Canadian-born children are not exempt from this fate.

People without permanent status earn lower wages, and are often afraid to join unions. In fact, in Alberta and Ontario, migrant farm workers are not allowed to join unions. They are not given information about how to file complaints when there are labour and human rights violations. Even if these workers know their rights, most won’t report abuse or unsafe working conditions because they are afraid of deportation with no chance of returning to Canada. Their dreams of bringing their families here keep them silent in the face of exploitation.

With tens of thousands of temporary workers here in Canada without their families and without their children, the chance of successful integration to the local neighbourhood is slim. As a result, the presence of migrant workers has occasionally resulted in jealousy and resentment by other workers who see them as depressing wages and taking “their” jobs.

Statistics Canada research shows Canada has one of the highest proportions of low-paid workers in the industrialized world. In many ways, the presence of such an extensive temporary workforce exerts pressure to keep wages low for all working families in Canada. With a low birth rate and vast lands, Canada’s economic growth is dependent on increasing the number of immigrants to Canada. Already, 43 per cent of Canadian businesses report labour shortages; 14 per cent say they can’t find enough low-skill and semi-skill workers.

If Latin American and Caribbean workers are good enough to work here, surely they are good enough to stay here permanently with their families, good enough to join unions and good enough to earn a decent wage. That is why New Democrats are pushing for a reform of the immigration point system, so more can come as family members and permanent workers. For those already working in Canada, they should be given a chance to stay here as citizens through a reformed Experience Class program and a regularization of their immigration status.


Olivia Chow is a Member of Parliament and former NDP critic on Citizenship and Immigration.



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