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Newspaper article

Public discussion on guest workers

Date

2009-11-05

Authors

Toronto Star

Abstract

Canada prides itself on being a nation of immigrants, but it is fast becoming a clearing house for temporary workers.
The traditional Canadian narrative – of people landing here to build a country and lay the foundations for citizenship – is going underground. Now, we are recruiting an army of 200,000 guest workers every year – almost as many as regular immigrants.

Newspaper title

The Toronto Star

Full text

Canada prides itself on being a nation of immigrants, but it is fast becoming a clearing house for temporary workers.

The traditional Canadian narrative – of people landing here to build a country and lay the foundations for citizenship – is going underground. Now, we are recruiting an army of 200,000 guest workers every year – almost as many as regular immigrants.

Recruited for short-term jobs, they face extortionary recruitment fees; bait-and-switch tactics with phantom jobs; contracts too often breached; wages only partially paid; and passports confiscated.

A litany of such abuses was chronicled in a series of articles this week by the Star's Sandro Contenta and Laurie Monsebraaten. Temporary workers were also spotlighted this week as part of the annual report from federal Auditor General Sheila Fraser.

Overall, the temporary worker program is a disheartening tale of political myopia, bureaucratic bungling and federal-provincial buck-passing. It is made possible by the desperation of impoverished foreign workers who put up with abuses because they feel trapped upon arrival – a fact that some employers are only too willing to exploit.

As the auditor general notes, the present state of affairs was largely predictable. The tale of temporary workers was always too good to be true: turn the employment tap on and off as needed to suit local economic conditions – and just return to sender when the workers are no longer needed.

Experience in Europe shows that this conceptual fairy tale rarely comes to pass in real life. Guest workers who have mortgaged their futures to come here, and who must send money to dependants back home, often melt into the underground economy rather than go back empty-handed.

The result is a rapidly growing pool of "undocumented workers," estimated by the RCMP to number several hundred thousand – mostly in the Toronto area. Do we really want to encourage the growth of a guest-worker underground where people are forced into the margins of society unable to access settlement services?

The program got its start in 2002 under the previous Liberal government, but it really took off in 2006 when the governing Conservatives offered a seat-of-the-pants response to employer demands for help in overheated provincial economies. The problem was that no one in Ottawa ever thought through how this rapidly expanding guest-worker program would be implemented and the rules enforced.

For its part, Queen's Park has moved belatedly under its jurisdiction to ban recruitment fees charged to live-in caregivers. Henceforth, employers will be required to pay such charges. But nannies are not the only ones needing protection, and the province must cast a wider net to protect other vulnerable temporary workers who can end up several thousand dollars in debt even before they land here. The Ontario government must also step up enforcement of employment violations.

This is a problem that crosses federal and provincial boundaries, and it requires coordinated action. But it is also an issue that requires public debate, because a workforce that goes underground is never out of sight. Immigration is a human issue that defines the kind of country we are. It can no longer be ignored.

Economic sectors

Agriculture and horticulture workers, Occupations in services - Domestic work, Sales and service occupations - general, Trades, transport and equipment operators and related occupations - general, Natural resources, agriculture and related production occupations - general, Labourers in food, beverage and associated products processing, Dancers, and Other

Content types

Policy analysis and Documented cases of abuse

Target groups

Public awareness

Geographical focuses

Canada, Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec, British Columbia, Other provinces, Federal, Nova Scotia, and National relevance

Languages

English