Jason Kenney tinkers with foreign worker scheme, low-wage goal remains
TheStar.com – news/Canada – Rana Plaza collapse: From Bangladesh to Ottawa, worldwide effort to drive down wages continues. But there is resistance.
Apr 30 2013. By: Thomas Walkom, National Affairs
A building collapses in Bangladesh, killing at least 386. A cabinet minister backpedals ever so slightly in Ottawa.
The events are separated by thousands of kilometres. What they have in common is twofold: a worldwide effort to drive down wages and a growing resistance to that effort.
The collapse of the eight-storey Rana Plaza clothing factory exposes a bitter truth about the globalized world. Inexpensive fashions, like those made in Bangladesh at the Rana Plaza and sold in Canada under Loblaw’s Joe Fresh label, come at a cost.
Canadian consumers do not pay that cost. Nor do Canadian companies. Those who work for slave wages in unsafe factories like the Rana Plaza do.
In some cases, as happened last week, they pay with their lives.
The backpedaling Monday by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney underscores a bitter truth about Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.
It has been forced to retreat marginally from its long-running campaign to push down wages in Canada. But it hasn’t given up the war.
Kenney’s tactical retreat was announced with much fanfare. As cameras clicked, the minister announced numerous changes to Ottawa’s temporary foreign workers program.
Yet only one is significant. That’s the government’s decision to axe a provision allowing employers to pay foreign temporary workers up to 15 per cent less than the going wage.
Even the Harperites had come to realize that, at a time when 1.4 million Canadians are out of work, this was unduly provocative.
But the bulk of Kenney’s reforms are cosmetic. In effect, the government is insisting that employers follow rules already in place — that is, prove their inability to find qualified Canadians before hiring foreign temporary workers from abroad.
Tellingly, the reforms don’t include measures to enforce these oft-broken rules. Nor do they address other loophole ridden visa schemes such as the intra-company transfer program (ICT).
As I’ve written before, the ICT program allows firms to import foreign employees without even minimal oversight.
More to the point, Kenney didn’t deign to mention the real villain of the piece, which is the ability of employers to outsource Canadian jobs to low-wage countries.
Which brings us back to the collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh.
The drive to keep wages low is not new. New York’s 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, in which 146 underpaid garment workers perished, was an early counterpart to the Rana Plaza.
That fire spurred efforts to unionize garment workers, boost their wages and improve working conditions.
So far, the Rana Plaza collapse has at least embarrassed firms like Loblaws that use low-wage Bangladeshi workers. The Canadian company has agreed to pay compensation to families of those who worked for its supplier and died in the disaster.
But the long-term answer to the Bangladeshi disaster is to raise wages and improve working conditions there.
Canada and other rich nations could help by insisting that wage and labour rights be preconditions for trade with developing nation like Bangladesh.
To put it another way, trade and immigration policy could be used to boost wages there toward Canadian levels.
But that is not what is happening. Instead, Canada’s government is using trade and immigration policy to lower wages here toward Bangladeshi levels.
Some Canadians, including highly-skilled information technology workers, see their jobs exported to lower-wage countries like India.
Others see jobs here going to temporary foreign workers.
Those Canadians who want to be paid a bit more to serve coffee in fast-food joints, for instance, are out of luck. Thanks to this government, chains like Tim Hortons don’t have to raise the wages they offer. Instead they can bring in cut-rate, temporary foreign help.
That the Harper government has been compelled to backtrack at all on the temporary foreign workers program is a victory of sorts. It demonstrates that public anger is at least registering in Ottawa.
But don’t be fooled. This government hasn’t given up. It remains determined, in the name of something it calls the economy, to bring wages down.
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