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Need not greed? Business tries to reframe debate on Temporary Foreign Worker Program

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Karl Flecker

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Stinging from the public outrage of how some employers and labour brokers have been taking advantage of Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), the Canadian Federation of
Independent Business is now trying to tell a different story.

CFIB has produced an 18 page booklet titled, Making it Work: Real stories of small business and foreign workers. The publication features 6 stories of businesses that have come to depend on 'nimble' access to temporary migrant labour. Reeling from a mountain of damaging media stories challenging the integrity of the TFWP -- business is desperate to change the frame.
The booklet is a slick production with photos and quotes from indebted migrant workers and their employers. It is being sent to every MP in Parliament with the express objective of changing their minds on what reforms are needed to fix a fundamentally broken program.

Earlier this year when it was discovered that one Canada's big banks, RBC was off-shoring and displacing IT workers by accessing temporary work permits through a labour broker, the public was outraged. Not only was a hugely profitable bank opting for lower wage workers based out of the country, but the soon to be displaced workers were training their own replacements.

Workers in other banks quickly revealed such practices are common place. Under the Conservatives the number of temporary work permits available to employers for this type of off-shoring option increased by 70 per cent (7,729 in 2006 to 13,166 in 2011).

Around the same time, it was also revealed that thousands of employers were readily and successfully obtaining temporary work permits allegedly for "high skilled" workers to toil in fast food restaurants, convenience stores and gas stations.

Their applications courtesy of already 'nimble' process established by the Conservatives in 2012, promised employers, their requests for migrant labourers would be addressed in just 10 business days. This fast lane to get such a worker also allowed employers to negotiate up to 15 per cent less in wages for these workers and any other worker doing the same job in the same workplace! This fast track/pay less initiative also allowed employers to pay up to 5 per cent less for so called, "low skilled" migrant workers and their national counterparts.

At the time, MP Kellie Leitch, now the newly appointed Minister of Labour gamely tried to defend the rush on cheap labour by employers, arguing that these workplaces could have been in desperate need of 'highly skilled managers.'

Fortunately the public was not in the mood to buy swamp land in Florida. Trapped in a quagmire of their own making, the Conservatives rushed to make repairs, with pronouncements of tough sounding reforms to the much beleaguered TFWP.

Worried about losing their virtually unfettered access to a vulnerable low wage migrant labour supply, CFIB has defensively rallied to tell their story of need -- not greed. A closer look at their stories of dependency on this program reveals what reforms they would prefer be put in place.

The 18-page booklet tells one compelling story of an employer unable to retain un-skilled workers in small town Alberta. Fortunately the Conservatives ramped up TFW program allowed the employer to recruit and retain migrant labourers eager to fill these jobs because of dire economic circumstances in their home countries.

The owner says, "They work hard, they appreciate the opportunity and they stick around." Noticeable missing is any explicit mention that a tied work permit obligates the migrant labourer to remain with his employer in order to maintain his status in Canada.

In another vignette, the CFIB booklet quotes a micro business owner describing her migrant worker as, "exactly the kind of person that Canada wants. He is young, talented, speaks English and is highly educated." Not said, but evident in the photos, is that he is also white.
Sadly, this employer was unable to make the temporary work arrangement last because the program required his wages be consistent with the 'going rate.'

That was just more than this employer could afford.

The CFIB booklet features two additional tales of woe for employers who also can't afford to pay comparable industry wages.

Evidently CFIB wants not only a return to a more 'nimble' TFWP that suits their members needs-but also one that does not demand wages that are in synch with the going rate.

The CFIB booklet inaccurately says the "TFWP is designed to allow companies in Canada to fill certain jobs they are simply unable to fill with Canadian workers." Conveniently omitted is the fact the TFWP, originally created by a Liberal government, was and to this date designed to only fill jobs on a temporary basis, not to be low wage fall back for employers who would routinely prefer to have a worker obligated to remain in the same work place -- season after season.
Employer's tales of shortages running their motels and restaurants in seasonal venues drive home CFIB's interest in having annual access to seasonal migrant workers who won't or can't leave for other work opportunities.

The final vignette is of a clothing manufacturer whose company has become reliant on migrant labour. This employer proudly offers the option of hourly wages or piece work remuneration, arguing that his workers prefer the latter option, because they can get better paid.
No mention is made of health and safety or the working conditions.

Perhaps CFIB is keen to see a reformed TFWP do away with stale notions of hourly wages, regular breaks, and safe working conditions in exchange for a piece work system -- no doubt different from the garment factory operators thriving in Bangladesh.

Tellingly, the owner of this garment factory featured in CFIB publication was appointed by Harper to the Conservatives' Red Tape Reduction Commission, which made the following recommendations to CIC and HRSDC in January 2012:

- To improve the quality, transparency and timeliness of service for the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and the International Student Program, we recommend that Citizenship and Immigration Canada significantly reduce wait times using electronic applications, as appropriate.

- To achieve improvements in service and consistency within the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, we recommend that Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, working with Citizenship and Immigration Canada, strengthen operational guidance, improve systems, change the assessment of wages, improve coordination via federal and/or provincial agreements, and develop a sound evaluation plan.

It should not come as a surprise this business owner is also a repeat donor to the federal Conservative party and to MP Peter McKay in particular.

At the same time CFIB's booklet was released, two other relevant reports were publicly released.
The University of Toronto reported that food insecurity within Canadian households was on the rise. In 2011, that meant 1.6 million households experienced this hunger -- that translates in to nearly 4 million people, including over 1 million children. Equally shocking was the statistic that 37 per cent of households relying on Employment Insurance or Workers' Compensation are food insecure (ie. suffer inadequate or insecure access to food because of financial constraints).

The Canadian Medical Association also released a report showing that poverty is greatest obstacle to improved health in Canada.

The connection between these two reports is telling.

Minimum-wage/low-income workers are especially prevalent working for small firms in the accommodation and the food services sector -- precisely the same industries that have eagerly taken advantage of precarious migrant workers. Low wage occupations have seen the fastest growth in overall numbers of migrant workers -- particularly since 2006.

Increasingly we are seeing a policy dynamic where migrants, with limited economic options in their home countries are left with few options, but to aspire to low wage jobs in Canada.
This government has facilitated this by, refashioning our immigration policy into a super sized guest -- worker program to serve the needs of the low wage business sector. At the same time, the Conservatives have gutted EI and are stonewalling improvements to CPP programs because small business won't pay their fair share. Public sector pensions get rolled back, again because small business associations don't like the comparisons. Hypocritically, the 2013 federal budget increased small business owners' lifetime capital gains exemption to $800,000 to "ensure their financial security for retirement".

The sum total of these zealous business friendly policy re-formulations results in an ever increasing group of migrant workers and members of the national workforce exchanging their economic positions of misery with poverty. The Conservative's ubiquitous Economic Action Plan ad campaign can't reframe this reality.

Likewise, if CFIB believes that publishing their stories of self interest will reform Canada’s TFWP, then perhaps it is time to produce a booklet exposing how this program contributes to human trafficking, exploitation, racism, sexual abuse, workplace injuries and yes even death.

It won't be pretty -- but it will be real.


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