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EI proposals initiate a race to the bottom for workers




Harald Bauder


Toronto Star

Buong Teksto

The latest attempt by the Conservative government to reform employment insurance reached a low point when Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said that she wants to make “sure that the McDonald’s of the world aren’t having to bring in temporary foreign workers to do jobs that Canadians who are on EI have the skills to do.”

The Toronto Star also reported that 2,200 general farm workers in Ontario submitted EI claims, while Ontario growers received 1,500 permits to hire foreign farm labour.

By pitting some of the most vulnerable Canadian workers against foreign labour, Finley is preparing us to compete in a race to the bottom.

Conservatives have tried the tactic of pitting Canadians against foreign workers before. Ontarians remember this attempt as so-called “farmfare.”

Farmfare was proposed in August 1999 by Toni Skarica, a Conservative MPP, and was intended to make Ontario’s welfare recipients work as seasonal labour in the horticulture sector.

Former premier Mike Harris weighed in on the debate by suggesting that manual farm labour could change the supposedly negative attitudes toward work among welfare recipients. According to Harris, “Getting up in the morning, getting regular, managing your time, getting out and doing things, feeling good about producing something, doing some work, they are all important . . . to help break that cycle of dependency.”

As expected, farmfare met fierce resistance from social advocacy groups, including the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, labour unions and churches.

Ontario’s Conservatives, however, did not expect the opposition from growers, who were the intended beneficiaries of cheap and flexible welfare labour. The growers were concerned that replacing their foreign workers with Canadians would harm their businesses.

One grower, for example, argued in a letter to the Star in 1999 that farmfare “would be disastrous. We are depending on our crop to make a living and it has to be saleable after it is picked. Our employees must want to work, not be forced to work.”

What makes foreign workers so attractive to Canadian employers is that they are more exploitable than Canadian workers. The stringent conditions of Canada’s temporary foreign workers program deny many workers free choice of employer, effectively bonding these workers to their jobs. In addition, the dependency on one employer renders workers unlikely to demand working and safety standards that Canadian citizens take for granted.

The opposition among growers contributed to the failure of farmfare. After 2000, it was not mentioned in the Ontario legislature again.

So what possesses the federal Conservative government to invigorate a similar debate now?

Finley’s proposal would not create new jobs for the unemployed, but would rather replace foreign workers with EI recipients. As immigration minister from 2007 to 2008, Finley allowed the temporary foreign workforce in Canada to swell from 255,000 in 2006 to 362,000 in 2008. Why is she now pitting this foreign workforce against unemployed Canadians?

To make sense of this apparent contradiction, one must realize that both the planned EI reforms and the temporary foreign workers program are part of a wider strategy of lowering the bar on minimal working conditions. Both policies seek to add a segment to the bottom of the labour market, below normal wage and labour standards.

In fact, the foreign workers program has been very effective in establishing wage and labour standards below those of what Canadians would accept. This program has established a double standard, according to which foreign workers are more vulnerable and exploitable than Canadian workers.

Now Finley asks Canadians to lower their standards to the same level. Canadians who are unwilling to accept the same working conditions kept artificially low by the foreign workers program will lose their EI entitlements.

If the Conservative strategy is successful, then McDonald’s and other employers would gain access to a low-wage and docile workforce of Canadians who are just as vulnerable and exploitable as foreign workers are today.

Will Canadian employers again come to the rescue and reject the current EI reform, just as they rejected farmfare? Maybe this time they won’t.

It is particularly worrying that EI recipients could, like temporary foreign workers, be denied fundamental rights, such as freedom of choice of occupation and employer. Getting fired from the job may not lead to deportation from Canada but to the loss of livelihood. In both cases, workers will effectively be bonded to their employer.

It is in the interest of all Canadians to maintain high labour and wage standards. Finley’s EI proposal, however, is heading in the opposite direction. Preserving high labour and wage standards requires elevating the conditions of the foreign workers programs to the standards that Canadians would expect, not the other way around.

Harald Bauder is the director of the Ryerson Centre for Immigration and Settlement (RCIS) and an associate professor at Ryerson University. He has written about farmfare in his book Labor Movement: How Migration Regulates Labor Markets.


Pang-ekonomiyang sektor

Sales and service occupations - general, Trades, transport and equipment operators and related occupations - general, and General farm workers

Mga Uri ng Nilalaman

Policy analysis

Target na mga grupo

Mambabatas, Mamamahayag, Pampublikong Kamalayan, Mga unyon, and NGO / komunidad group / network ng pagkakaisa

Geographical kaugnayan

Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec, British Columbia, Iba pang mga Lalawigan, Pederal, and Nova Scotia

Spheres ng aktibidad

Ekonomya, Heograpya, Karapatan, Human Resource Management, and Pampulitika Agham