Migrant workers do some of the most important work in our country, like harvesting our food and caring for seniors and our children. These workers often face dangerous working conditions, live in substandard housing, and have little access to protection or social services.
A growing movement of migrants and their allies is organizing to resist this exploitation. In October 2015 the Coalition for Migrant Workers’ Rights Canada was founded with a simple goal: “to re-build the immigration system to ensure basic dignity and fairness for everyone.”
The federal Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) sets the ground rules for migrant worker exploitation. The program’s system of work permits ties workers to one employer. This makes it very difficult for workers to leave when there is physical or economic abuse. Their temporary immigration status – and the threat of deportation – means workers are vulnerable if they speak out or organize against workplace injustice.
By creating a pool of vulnerable workers, the TFWP gives employers too much power, and creates a disincentive for them to provide better wages, benefits and conditions to all workers. Now, rules about temporary workers are being incorporated into trade and investment deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The more insidious impact of the TFWP is the unfounded fear that migrants are ‘stealing the jobs of Canadian workers.’ This divides Canadian workers when we need to unite and fight economic insecurity and the expansion of precarious employment. We don’t need fewer workers, whether Canadian or foreign-born. We need a more equitable economic system. That starts with investment in skills training and apprenticeships, living wages and income security, strong social programs and public services, a robust immigration program and permanent residency for all foreign workers when they arrive.
Earlier this year, labour, community and faith groups organized a first-of-its-kind forum, Equal in Dignity, Equal in Rights, in Fredericton, NB. Participants learned from migrant workers about their experiences, and focused on how to fix the TFWP. “This forum gives me hope,” said one migrant worker. “We are so glad we came. We learned there are people who support us and who do not see us as nameless and faceless migrant workers who steal jobs from Canadians.”
On the heels of this forum, the federal government has announced a review of the TFWP. Migrants and their allies, including CUPE, are mobilizing to stop tying migrant workers to specific employers, and demanding a transition to permanent immigration status upon arrival for all migrant workers. Migrant voices need to be heard.
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