Low wages, not poor work ethic, behind surge of foreign labour
TheStar.com – Opinion/Commentary – Small business sector accuses Canadian job seekers of being unreliable and unmotivated to defend their hiring of foreign guest workers, ignoring their own addiction to low-wage foreign employees.
Apr 15 2014. By: Carol Goar Star Columnist
Tired of being demonized by the media, denounced in Parliament and disciplined by Employment Minister Jason Kenney, Canada’s small business owners are starting to push back.
The reason they hire foreign temporary workers when 1.3 million Canadians are unemployed, they insist, is that they have a better work ethic than domestic job applicants. “If we’re not prepared to do these jobs and we don’t want our kids to do them either — yet we still want to go to the mall and find a clean bathroom and we still want someone to clean our hotel rooms — why are we so afraid to allow people to come to Canada to happily do these jobs?” asked Dan Kelly, head of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB).
“They’re going to show up to work on time. They’re going to work a full week without disappearing. They’re not going to take off because they have to take their dog to the vet,” he told CBC News.
It’s time to have an “adult conversation about the world of work,” the president of the lobby group representing 109,000 small businesses declared last week. His comments came after the owner of three McDonald’s franchises in Victoria was caught bringing in Filipino workers while cutting the hours of domestic staff and turning away Canadian job seekers. Kenney immediately launched a federal investigation, warning the franchise owner — and any other employer who bypasses qualified Canadians — that Ottawa would impose criminal sanctions. “We will not tolerate it,” the minister vowed. “They will be put on the blacklist and as soon as monetary fines are in place, we will be throwing the book at them.”
This is not the first time an employer has been caught breaking the rules of the temporary foreign workers program, which state clearly that first preference must be given to qualified Canadians. Three other restaurants — two in Labrador-Newfoundland, one in Fenelon Falls, Ont. — have had their permits to hire temporary foreign workers suspended for infractions similar to the MacDonald’s case. A B.C. mining company sparked an outcry by hiring exclusively Chinese workers, claiming no Canadian could meet its requirement to speak Mandarin.
But it is the first time the small business sector has stood its ground so defiantly. This suggests it isn’t likely to change its hiring policy willingly. But it also signals confusion about what the Tories actually want.
Seven years ago, they threw open the floodgates to temporary foreign workers, turning a modest program to fill labour shortages in the oilpatch into a high-volume spillway into the Canadian job market. Hundreds of thousands poured in. Cabinet ministers brushed off complaints that the program was being abused.
Last April, Prime Minister Stephen Harper turned on a dime. “We will reform this program,” he vowed. “We will make sure it sticks to its purpose, which is to provide temporary help when there is an absolute skills shortage.”
Overnight, Kenney’s role changed from chief enabler to chief enforcer. He brought in tough new rules, created a snitch line and tabled legislation to bring in stiff fines.
If employers want to talk about the government’s abrupt about-face, that is legitimate. If they want an “adult conversation” about work and remuneration, they should be ready to answer some key questions:
- Why should they be exempt from market discipline? The law of supply and demand provides a clear solution to domestic labour shortages. Raise wages or improve working conditions.
- Why are they telling Canadians their kids and neighbours have a poor work ethic? Lots of Canadians do dirty, onerous jobs — pick up garbage, go down mines, wash highrise windows.
- Why are they comparing foreign workers whose immigration status depends on their performance to Canadian workers who have the freedom to walk away from exploitative employers?
The business federation is right. It is time to talk honestly about work.
For its members, having a ready supply of low-wage workers may be paramount. For the rest of society, other priorities matter. Canadians want a fair shot at jobs in their own country. They want fair labour practices. They want one set of rules for everybody.
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