Why Canada exploits temporary foreign workers

Posted on June 20, 2020 in Policy Context

Source: — Authors:

TheStar.com – Opinion/Contributors

One of the more peculiar aspects of the Canadian economy is its reliance on temporary foreign workers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on such workers — particularly in the agricultural sector.

In Ontario, more than 600 foreign farm workers have contracted the disease. Two Mexican labourers hired to work on Windsor-area farms have died.

None of this should come as a surprise. The whole point of the temporary foreign workers program is to provide employers with cheap labour.

In agriculture, this is typically accomplished by housing workers in crowded bunkhouses and requiring them to labour long hours for low pay — with the threat of deportation looming should they dare to slack off.

It’s a recipe that creates ideal conditions for infectious diseases like the new coronavirus.

It’s also an odd way to organize such an important part of the economy.

The widespread use of temporary foreign workers is relatively new in Canada. Traditionally, labour shortages were dealt with through the normal immigration process. An immigrant would come to Canada, get a job and eventually become a citizen.

But as governments shifted their focus to attracting skilled immigrants, fewer spots were available for the less-educated. The solution was to create a new category of immigrant — the temporary foreign worker.

In most cases, the temporary foreign worker has no claim on citizenship. He or she is allowed entry to work and then, once the job is done, sent home. Typically, temporary foreign workers have fewer rights than their Canadian counterparts. They may be bound to a single employer, for instance.

For most, though, the key requirement is a willingness to accept low wages.

It is often said that temporary foreign workers do the jobs that Canadians aren’t willing to take. In fact, that’s not quite it. A more accurate way to put it is that temporary foreign workers do the jobs Canadians aren’t willing to take at the wages on offer.

If farmers offered a living wage for, say, picking asparagus, I expect they would find any number of takers.

But many farmers can’t afford to pay a living wage. Under free trade, they are in competition with low-wage growers in countries like Mexico.

Ironically, the only way they can compete with these low-wage countries is by importing cheap labour from them.

The choice facing the consumer then is whether to buy, say, asparagus from Mexico picked by Mexicans or asparagus from Canada picked by Mexicans.

It was not always this way. Before the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement and its 1989 predecessor, the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, many of Canada’s crops were tariff-protected. That meant they cost consumers more. But it also meant that Canadian farmers could pay higher wages to those who picked such crops.

As a result, these were jobs that Canadians were willing to take. And many, including students, did take them. There was no need for temporary foreign agricultural workers.

Presumably, this is the kind of world New Brunswick premier Blaine Higgs had in mind when, in April, as part of his efforts to control the pandemic, he banned temporary foreign workers from his province. He argued that students and other New Brunswick residents could take-up the slack.

Within two weeks, Higgs was forced to reverse himself. New Brunswickians, it seems, were willing to work but not at Third World wage rates. The province quickly reopened itself to foreign temporary workers.

And that is where we sit now. As long as free trade rules, farmers will be under pressure to pay their workers less than Canadians are willing to accept. That in turn will lead to more temporary foreign workers.

At the same time, the government is being urged to provide such workers with a path to citizenship that would give them the same rights (and presumably the same wages) as other Canadians.

Which seems fair and very Canadian. But who then will pick the asparagus?


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