I admit to being a bit surprised about how just how the temporary foreign worker program hit the front pages over recent weeks. For migration policy wonks, the myriad problems with temporary foreign worker programs are well known, and usually do not centre on putting citizen workers out of jobs.
I’ve been mulling it over and have come to the conclusion that the current uproar might even have been deliberately provoked to provide a politically palatable way to end to the most progressive aspect of the temporary foreign worker program.
Temporary foreign worker programs are not new. Canada has relied on temporary foreign workers off and on for much of the last century. Many other Western democracies have done the same.
Which some employers could see as convenient.
The degree of scrutiny can also vary. Duh.
The typical critiques of temporary foreign work programs over the past quarter of a century have been a) it is hard to get people to leave when the work ends; and b) temporary workers are routinely exploited. Most critics care about one of these problems more than the other, depending on their political bent.
In 2009, for the first time, Canada allowed more temporary foreign workers than permanent economic migrants. A couple of years later, the government started a pilot program for low-skilled workers. This is significant because temporary foreign work is most often about the highly skilled, and thus creates opportunities and global mobility that contribute to the global gap between the rich and the poor. The opportunity to work in a prosperous Western country is, comparatively, worth a lot more to a woman with a high school education from the global South than it is to a pipefitter weighing the choice between the Scottish and the Canadian oil patch.
A containable scandal about restaurant workers in Alberta is all about those who are categorized as ‘low-skilled’. It might just prove to be the government’s reason to shut down the one, very small, part of Canada’s foreign work program that actually has some potential to ameliorate rather than exacerbate global inequality. Certainly public opinion is currently being roused to support closing the program to those defined as ‘low-skilled’, across all parts of the political spectrum.
Which is wrong, because the true fix would be to the ‘duh’ factor.
But the issue is also confusing to object to, because of the way it splits the opinions of those of us who currently work in this area, and leaves (some of) us in the awkward position of having to defend temporary foreign work in order to object to the current discourse. And that is distasteful as temporary foreign work is just a bad idea all round.
Even railway workers who paid the head tax, ended up with a right to remain permanently in Canada.