Analysis: Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker Program

The founding congress of the International Migrant's Alliance (IMA) in Hong Kong in July 2008 and the International Assembly of Migrants and Refugees (IAMR) in September the same year served to expose the concerted international policies promoting migration of workers and their devastating impact. The experience and research of grassroots migrants organizations world-wide has produced a wealth of information about how imperialist globalization is commodifying workers to the ultimate degree for the extraction of superprofits.

 We have seen how the imperialists have actually put a positive spin on this massive forced migration and commodification of workers and have the gall to call it a "tool for development". We know that in fact it bleeds the countries of the south of their workforce, decimates families, and is one more way of preventing real development from taking place in the South, and of maintaining imperialist control and uneven distribution of power and wealth in the world.

  The age of imperialist globalization is the age of the temporary worker, the migrant, the just-in-time “rent-a-worker” labour force, to use and then dispose of. Indeed, the Philippines is the number one source of this throw-away labour force per capita. The Philippine ruling class and its governments have shamelessly peddled their people to the highest bidder for decades. The Labour Export Policy (LEP), a so-called stop-gap measure introduced by the dictator Marcos in the 1970's, has become a permanent fixture in the Philippine economy, the principal dollar earner to prop up the backward, semi-feudal and semi-colonial system of rule in the country.

Canada is an eager partner in the imperialist system, and a long-time recipient of this manna from the south, particularly the Philippines. In 2007, the Philippines became the number one source of migrants and immigrants to Canada.  For over five decades Filipinos have been migrating to Canada. They came as immigrants at first, mostly professionals, office and factory workers in the 1960's, when many settled in Winnipeg. From the 1980's there was a sharp rise in their numbers. This corresponded to the Philippines labour export policy, and a special Temporary Foreign Worker Program in Canada that brought in mainly women to work as nannies, caregivers and maids. Known as the Foreign Domestic Movement Program (1980-92), and more recently as the Live-In Caregiver Program (1992-present), or LCP,  it had a lure not generally found in temporary worker programs in other recipient countries. If offered the possibility of landed immigrant status, if one could put up with the indentured-labour-like conditions for a "mere" two or three years. These conditions can be oppressive, exploitative, racist and heartless. Philippine community groups have organized to denounce this program and these conditions and to defend the rights and welfare of Filipino migrants in Canada.  However, as we have focussed on these most exploited of workers, the LCPers, and the program that turns them into captive workforce in Canada,  the Canadian ruling class has been concocting a program and policies that in many ways are even worse.
The appetite of the Canadian ruling class for vulnerable, foreign workers in precarious status has grown beyond the LCP and the seasonal agricultural workers' program, encouraged by the imperialist consensus in favour of labour force mobility.

Since 2002, when the Canadian government brought into force the new Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, a series of measures have been adopted to expand the temporary foreign worker program to virtually all sectors of workers. These changes are taking some of the worst features of the LCP and applying them to other workers, while taking away the carrot, that is, the permanent residency at the end. In other words, Canada's immigration policy is shifting away from recruiting immigrants and permanent residents, in favour of recruiting masses of temporary foreign workers. Permanent residency is being reserved for the highly skilled and the rich.

In 2006, the Federal government allocated over $50 million to speed up the recruitment of TFW's. It set up special teams and resources in several cities dedicated to TFW recruitment, fast-tracked the process of Labour Market Opinions (LMOs) required, lengthened the duration of visas for TFW's from one year to two years. Meanwhile the immigration system recruiting permanent residents remains bogged down in huge backlogs.

This shift towards temporary migrants will accentuate the elitist nature of immigration policy and create a more blatant two-tier population, one of citizens with rights, and the other of temporary and non-status, generally low-wage, workers.  We must adjust our tactics and our demands accordingly to oppose this reactionary shift.

The current crisis, and the downturn in the economy, has diminished the demand for workers. Hundreds of temporary foreign workers are being sent back to their countries. But the essential trend towards the use of temporary workers remains. For one thing, they are easier to lay off, or send back when their labour is not required.

Meanwhile, those who cannot go back because the situation in the Philippines and other countries has only worsened, are forced to go underground. IMA estimates there will be an important rise in the number of undocumented workers in all the receiving countries, and we are already seeing this in Canada.

Some history

Canada is a country of immigrants. In 2006, approximately 20% of  the population in Canada was foreign-born, a higher proportion than any other country except Australia (22%).1 The vast majority of its citizens are descendants of immigrants and migrants, except for the indigenous people who make up over four percent of the population.

Canada has always tailored its immigration policies to the needs of capital. From the need to establish European colonial interests here from the 16th-19th centuries, to the need to build a nation from coast-to-coast for the emerging Canadian bourgeoisie, and the need to industrialize it after World War II, vast waves of immigrants and migrants came to work and stay, forming the population today. This history is paved with discrimination and racism against, for example, the Chinese workers who were brought in to build the railroad across Canada in the late nineteenth century. At least one worker perished for each mile of track laid through the Rocky Mountains, because of the dangerous working conditions. The racist Chinese Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited them from bringing their families to Canada for decades. It was only in the 1960's that the last vestiges of these laws against Chinese settlement in Canada were lifted. Of course, systemic racism has remained.

Today Canada's labour force is shrinking and the birth rate not keeping up with labour market needs.   About 2/3 of Canada's population growth comes from net international migration.2 Unions say there is an underutilization of the Canadian labour force.  Government and employer cutbacks in training programs - Ottawa spends less than all other OECD members on training - means that many Canadians who could be responding to the demand in some fields are not being trained or retrained.

Meanwhile, because of tighter borders, tougher security measures, and cutbacks in the civil service,  there is a notorious backlog in applications for permanent residency: and over 915,000 files are waiting to be processed.3 People abroad, including the Philippines, place their lives on hold waiting for promised immigration papers. Some wait up to six years. Others just give up.

In response to the clamour from employers facing labour shortages, such as the construction sites of British Colombia as it prepares for the 2010 Olympics, and the tar sands of Alberta, up until the start of the major economic crisis in late 2008, the government of Canada fast-tracked the recruitment of temporary workers in a broad range of trades.  "In the federal budget of 2007, the Conservative government committed an additional $50.5 million over two years to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to reduce processing delays, and to respond more effectively to  regional labour and skill shortages, so employers can better meet their human resource needs."4

Up until 2002, Canada's TFW Programs were limited to essentially three: the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Programme - recruiting workers mostly from Mexico and Central America; the Live-In-Caregiver Programme - recruiting mostly women from the Philippines; and the Temporary Foreign Worker program for skilled workers, recruiting mainly academics, professionals in high demand, artists or athletes. The latter were generally able to dictate their conditions and bring their families. Starting in 2002, and intensified in 2006 under the Conservative government, Canada dramatically expanded the list of occupations under which workers could be recruited on temporary restricted visas.

“The result is that the federal government, with the tacit support and encouragement of provincial governments and employers, has created a guest-worker program that far outstrips the United States. In 2006, the entire US had 160,000 guest workers. Canada had 171,844. ...That year for the first time, more temporary foreign workers were admitted to Canada than new economic immigrants.”

"What most Canadians do not yet understand is the scale of the government's involvement in bringing workers into Canada on restrictive, temporary permits and the consequences for those workers. TFW's are severely limited in their ability to change employers and it is difficult, if not impossible, to apply for permanent immigration status."5

Horror stories of discrimination and exploitation have made headlines in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto in the past two years. TFW's have been subject to arbitrary and shifting employment conditions with little ability to defend themselves or seek alternative employment. The TFW is often paid substantially less than their Canadian co-workers, the working conditions are often significantly different from those promised. For example, an administrative assistant arriving to find she was to work at a gas station; chefs from 5-star hotels spending half their time washing dishes and floors, mechanics being told their job is apprentice-mechanic with pay lowered accordingly. Housing provided is substandard, crowded and costly. Threats of deportation or imprisonment if the TFW complains.6

We have also recently witnessed the arrests of dozens of migrant workers in a series of raids in Ontario by immigration authorities in April and May 2009, under the pretence of rooting out “illegals”, a carbon copy of the strong arm measures used south of the border against migrant workers.

The use of labour brokers or recruitment agencies has led to the proliferation of operators who see the opportunity for making a fast buck. Brokers are largely unregulated, and TFW's have paid exorbitant fees for placement.

Meanwhile Canada must compete with other countries to draw in high-skilled and professional workers. It has created the Canadian Experience Class to hold on to foreign students who have studied in Canada, and skilled workers who came as TFW's and acquired Canadian experience. They are offered immigrant status. The provinces can also sponsor TFW's as immigrants under the Provincial Nominee Program. But this remains a piecemeal measure, and does not reverse the clear trend to a two-tiered immigration system in Canada.

The TFWP  is  employer-driven,  job-specific
Employers in several sectors have found that they cannot attract a reliable workforce unless workers are tied to their jobs and cannot change easily. For example, agriculture: current conditions are too difficult to attract and keep local workers. The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program delivers a captive workforce to this sector.  The live-in caregivers: the only way to keep workers in the current conditions is to make the live-in mandatory, as with the LCP.

Other dirty, difficult and dangerous jobs, like in slaughterhouses, food transformation, fast-food outlets, are also areas reserved for TFWs.

Under the TFWP, the workers come on the request of specific employers, and are attached to them for the duration of their stay in Canada. They cannot easily change jobs or remain in the country if they are unemployed. The expanded TFWP combines the worse features of the LCP program while taking away the carrot of possible permanent residency.

In contrast, the immigration process with permanent residency allows the immigrant to work where he/she wants, change jobs, and avail of the same rights and privileges as Canadian-born workers (albeit with unspoken systemic racism and the same class exploitation as Canadian workers).

But Canada's immigration system is fraught with problems. It is underfunded and extremely backlogged. An immigrant's credentials are not necessarily recognized in the labour market and jobs are not necessarily guaranteed. For example, when a new economic immigrant arrives in Canada, they have met certain labour market needs statistically but they are not guaranteed a job in their field. Classic stories abound of immigrants trained abroad as doctors or engineers working as taxi drivers or factory workers in Canada. Also, prospective immigrants need to show they have savings to support themselves for the first few months, or have guarantors.  

The TFWP is seen by some as a positive alternative because it is faster and does guarantee a job, ostensibly in the workers' field... and does not require the worker to show he/she has savings. But the temporary status leaves the migrant without the bargaining power to enforce the work contract without fear of being sent back. Most TFW's spend dearly on placement fees and make many sacrifices to get to Canada. They need the money from their salary to pay back their debts and support their families back home. Again, they are a captive workforce at the mercy of Canadian employers.

The ruling class consensus

There seems to be a general consensus in the halls of power about these changes to immigration policy.

There have been no big debates about it in Parliament. Even during the last federal election campaign in November 2008, immigration policy was virtually absent from the debates. Traditionally, the Liberal Party of Canada, currently in the opposition, was identified as more pro-immigrant than the Conservatives. For bourgeois politicians, it is always a matter of what will be more profitable electorally, and supporting immigrant issues outside of the ridings where they represent a large constituency can be a liability. So they speak out of both sides of their mouths, depending on whom they are addressing.

The federal government tabled the changes to immigration policies in 2006,  as part of a huge omnibus bill, C-50, which covered numerous other budget items. This tactic served to scatter the opposition among many issues, and provided an excuse to drop the issues concerning (im)migrants.

In whose interests are the changes?

1) Big business: the Canadian monopoly bourgeoisie, engineering, construction, service corporations involved in infrastructure preparations for the BC Olympic Games; the oil and gas sector corporations in the Alberta tar sands; subcontractors, service companies catering to the workers. This demand is supposedly temporary, and project-related.

2) Other sectors of business: health care, meat packing, food transformation, construction. This demand is more long-term, and there are contradictions between provincial governments and the federal TFWP as many provinces – especially those facing a net outflow of people - want to attract workers to settle permanently. Thus provincial governments, especially like the Manitoba government (NDP social-democratic) has been making use of its prerogative with the Provincial Nominee Program to offer permanent resident status to many TFW's. These are still a minority however, and most of those brought in under the Provincial Nominee program in the last two years have been to work at the Maple Leaf meat processing plant in Brandon, Manitoba, an undesirable sector for many local workers.

The plant, owned by a huge agri-business conglomerate, employs ever 2000 workers. It was set up in this small town to serve the US market. Such mega-meat plants have met with strong opposition in other communities because of the tons of animal waste produced which is dumped on the land and contaminates the groundwater.

3) Employer associations, Chambers of Commerce, labour brokers and recruitment agencies.

Progressive forces:

-- Unions, including the Canadian Labour Congress, published a statement denouncing the expanded TFWP in October 2008 during the federal election campaign. However, the press release was not followed up with other significant actions, and the CLC did not insist on making it an election issue. They have since produced other documents of interest on the TFWP.

The Alberta Federation of Labour has played an active role in monitoring the conditions and defending workers whose rights are violated. This is understandable as Alberta has been one of the main destinations of TFW's. (See the two reports from the AFL's Special Advocate for TFW's).

Canadian Union of Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) has set up 8 regional offices to provide support and advocacy to TFW's, particularly seasonal farmworkers.

The Steelworkers are playing a positive role in supporting organizing efforts of domestic workers and other migrant workers.

-- The Migrante network and other grassroots migrant groups are the most reliable advocates for the rights and welfare of migrants, including Migrante Ontario, Pinay, PMSC and other member groups of IMA Canada, along with Justicia and No One is Illegal (NOII).

-- Human rights organizations: The Quebec Human Rights Commission has been active in taking on cases of migrant worker abuse and racism. Its recent study (available in French) is an excellent argumentation of why Canada must adopt the UN Convention on Migrant Rights.

Migrant community Demands

On the Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP):

The consensus among live-in-caregiver organizations focuses on demands to change the most abusive aspects of the LCP, including:
- drop the mandatory live-in requirement  
- work not employer-specific   
- full access to same benefits as other workers   
- landed immigrant status on arrival

Union-community cooperation: Migrante chapters in Ontario and Quebec have been working on an arrangement with unions (namely the Steelworkers) which would provide caregivers with services such as medical, dental coverage and legal advice. Filipino migrant organizations wish to maintain their independence and continue to arouse, organize and mobilize compatriots to support fundamental change in the Philippines. This cooperation is currently being forged and represents a ground-breaking development for community groups and the Canadian labour movement.

The Juana Tejada Law:  This bill, tabled in the Canadian Parliament in 2009,  aims to do away with another of the discriminatory and racist conditions of the LCP which requires a worker who has met the already unfair and difficult requirements of the LCP to pass a second medical examination before she can be accepted as a resident. The courageous Juana Tejada waged a campaign led by Migrante Ontario to fight this requirement before she died of cancer. The campaign is supported by a wide range of social justice groups and progressive parliamentarians, including those in the Philippines. The law would set an important precedent if adopted. The campaign serves to point out the glaring injustice of the LCP and other TFW programs.  (Update: This bill was adopted in December 2009 - a victory for the many supporters of the campaign.)

Health and safety coverage in Quebec: The CSST (French acronym for workers' compensation board) campaign spearheaded by PINAY, is to ensure that workers' compensation benefits are accessible to caregivers. It has wide support from unions, women's and social justice groups.

"Délai de carence" in Quebec (concerning the waiting period for health coverage) is another campaign in which PINAY is playing a key role. Migrants and new immigrants to Quebec must wait three months upon arrival before they are covered by universal health benefits. This affects thousands of newcomers who often go into huge debts to pay for health services if they fall sick in that time. The campaign is to drop this waiting period and give full coverage immediately on arrival.

On the TFW Program

Filipino migrants under the LCP represent only 15% of the Filipino population in the Toronto area, which numbers over 150,000. The same is true in other centres where Filipinos are concentrated. Filipinos are now the number one source of migrants and immigrants to Canada. Many have been coming under the TFWP. Various social justice groups have been joining together to oppose the abusive conditions of the TFWP, and many demands have emerged.

Forging Alliances

While Filipino migrants and immigrants continue to support the movement for fundamental change  in the Philippines, they also deal with their worsening concrete conditions in Canada, conditions which are shared by other migrant workers. The changes in Canadian immigration policies are part of a reactionary trend to put downward pressure on workers' conditions overall.  During times of economic crisis there is increased scapegoating of migrants and immigrants. These are all issues which must be addressed by the migrant communities along with the workers and progressives of the host society.

We have seen a rise in the repression against migrants; the shameful raid against over 100 foreign workers in the Toronto area on April 2, 2009, is one example. The raid was the result of a concerted action by the Canadian Border Services Agency( CBSA), the newest border intelligence and control agency set up in 2003, as well as the regular police forces. Crackdowns like these are expected to increase. There was quick response and outcry by community groups and human rights bodies but the opposition needs to be consolidated and broadened,  as this raid is likely just the beginning of more to come.

Governments like in Quebec are also opposing the demand that live-in caregivers be covered by CSST- workers' compensation for workplace accidents and injuries, despite widespread support for the demand, spearheaded by PINAY,  and other groups. They are pretexting the cost of implementing this measure in the current economic context. The CSST struggle is an important one, which shows the sexist and racist nature of the LCP. It is also one where Philippine community groups are playing a leading role, like Migrante Ontario did in the Juana Tejada struggle.

Migrant workers’ demands:
- migrants must have same rights as other workers  
- oppose the reactionary shift in Canada's immigration policy   
- expose the plans of the GFMD, and the policies of imperialist globalization   
- work with other migrants and allies to oppose divide-and-rule tactics and anti-migrant propaganda   
- build Migrante in Canada and internationally   
- expand and consolidate the IMA and IMA-Canada   
- support struggles against Canadian capitalism and imperialism.

Drafted by MB for the Centre for Philippine Concerns, Montreal, Canada,  
associate member of the IMA, October 2009, in collaboration with Filipino community groups.