Temporary workers program is a time bomb

TheStar.com – Opinion/Comment – Temporary workers program is a time bomb
Published On Thu Nov 05 2009.   By Haroon Siddiqui Editorial Page

The Stephen Harper Conservatives have adopted one of the worst policies of authoritarian oil-rich Arab states: an exploitative system of indentured labour, a.k.a. the temporary workers program.

You import workers on short-term visas, tether them to one employer, bar them from bringing families, deny them state benefits and services, and then ship them back at the end of their contract.

But since Canada does not have border exit controls, we don’t know how many of those whose visas have expired have actually left.

So when Ottawa says that there were 251,235 such visa holders on Dec. 1 last year, it’s tossing out a misleading figure. It assumes that those who were supposed to leave at the end of their visas did.

We do not know how many have gone underground. No doubt they will turn up someday somewhere, seeking refugee status or blanket amnesty. The public will be chagrined and the immigration system will fall into further disrepute.

This is what happened across Europe because of the guest worker program. Workers were recruited, mostly from Turkey and North Africa, for jobs Europeans would not do or would not do for the wages and conditions offered.

The guests, of course, stayed.

Often denied citizenship, they lived marginalized lives, many on the dole. Their children got into trouble with the law.

In the banlieues (crowded social housing projects) of Paris, Lyon, Marseilles and Montpellier, and also the ghettoes of Berlin and Amsterdam, etc. – where old people spend their days in parks and ethnic cafes, and the young loiter the streets at night – you hear the same poignant tale of estrangement: few or no jobs but discrimination aplenty, at school and at work.

The public ignored the problem, at first. When it no longer could, it got angry, stoked by right-wing anti-immigrant politicians.

It’s only now that Europe is coming to terms with its folly – granting citizenship, initiating language training and integration courses. And confronting public institutions and private employers about systemic racism. Even Nicolas Sarkozy favours employment equity, to help generate social cohesion.

All this has been horrendously costly and not just in money.

Meanwhile, in recession-wracked Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, etc., draconian police forces have been ferreting out those who have overstayed their visas and putting them on flights to the Philippines, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, etc.

Yet here we are in Canada going down the same slippery slope.

We used to have two temporary worker streams: for nannies (who could become immigrants) and seasonal agricultural workers (who couldn’t and had to go home).

The Liberals under Paul Martin expanded the program to include low-skilled workers.

But what started out as a way to help the labour needs of the Alberta oil patch has been dramatically ramped up by the Tories. Ottawa now admits more temporary entrants than permanent residents.

Temporary workers may be exploited for up to four years. Many cannot join unions or apply for immigration. Abuses are inevitable – by recruiters who charge high fees or promise non-existent jobs, and by employers who pay lower than promised wages, provide inadequate housing or forfeit promises of paid travel to home countries.

This has been documented by the Star’s Sandro Contenta and Laurie Monsebraaten, and confirmed by Auditor General Sheila Fraser.

Naomi Alboim, a former Ontario deputy minister who raised the red flag on this in a report released in July for the Maytree Foundation, has the perfect solution: End the low-skilled temporary foreign workers program, forthwith.

Labour shortages are real. The solution is clear: offer better wages and working conditions to Canadians or bring low-skilled workers as landed immigrants. What we definitely do not need is what the Tories are doing: undermining our immigration system, a foundational principle of Canada, in the short-term interest of employers.

In creating an undocumented underclass and risking a permanent two-tier society, the Conservatives are assembling a time bomb.

http://www.thestar.com/comment/article/721308

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