Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Foreign Migrant Workers in Alberta

Foreign Migrant Workers in Alberta
Bob Barnetson and Jason Foster, Athabasca University
Canadian Political Science Association 84th Annual Convention
Edmonton, June 13, 2012

Good afternoon. I’m Bob Barnetson and I’m a prof at Athabasca University. This afternoon I’m going to present a short overview of a paper my colleague Jason Foster and I put together describing the use and impact of temporary foreign workers in Alberta. 

In 2011, there were 58,000 temporary foreign workers (TFWs) in Alberta, comprising about 3% of the labour force. There is also an unknown number of non-status migrants—illegal migrants—often TFWs whose work permits have expired. Anecdotally, the number of non-status migrants is between 50,000 and 100,000—meaning migrant workers comprise up to 8% of Alberta’s labour force.

This is important because what we’ve seen over the past 10 years is the creation of a large and seemingly permanent class of guest workers who are concentrated in low-skill jobs—cashiers, clerk, labourers, truck drivers. And this has significant implications for the workplace rights of both the TFWs and Canadian workers.

Exploitation of Migrant Workers in Alberta
It is well established that migrant workers are more vulnerable to exploitation in the workplace than workers who hold Canadian citizenship. TFWs in Canada have very constrained labour mobility—their permits specify the employer they can work for as well as the location and occupation of the TFW. This means TFWs’ residency in Canada is highly dependent upon the continued good will of their employers because TFWs have no meaningful opportunity to seek other work should their employer terminate them.

This limited labour mobility compounds the effect of other characteristics common among TFWs. These include limited knowledge of Canadian laws, institutions and labour markets as well as social isolation, language barriers and limited financial resources. What this means is that TFWs are often unable and/or reluctant to file complaints against their employers or labour brokers because of their vulnerability to reprisal. A lack of complaints is highly problematic as Alberta’s labour standards and workplace safety systems are mostly complaint-driven systems.

The Alberta Federation of Labour has documented the exploitation of TFWs by employers in Alberta. Typically this entails unpaid wages and overtime, unsafe work, contractual and statutory breaches, and horrendous living conditions. To give you some sense of the scale of this exploitation, 74% of Alberta workplaces employing TFWs that were inspected in 2009 were found to be in breach of one or more employment standards.

While the exploitation of TFWs is not an explicit goal of the TFW program, it is consistent with the broad purpose of the program—which is to allow employers to access relatively inexpensive and docile labour. Exploitation is simply employers taking advantage of well known weaknesses in the federal government’s TFW program and in the provincial government’s enforcement of employment laws (or lack thereof).

Rationalizing Temporary Foreign Workers
The discourse around TFWs in Alberta is complex. While it is a federal program, the majority of issues that are raised around exploitation fall into provincial jurisdiction. Looking through both Hansard transcripts and press coverage since 2000, Jason and I identified three main narratives that Alberta politicians use to manage the message around TFWs: TFWs are necessary to deal with a labour shortage, TFWs pose no threat to the employment of Canadian workers, and TFWs face no threat of exploitation. I’d like to flesh out these narratives a bit in the time we have.

First, Alberta MLAs rationalize the growth of TFWs as the only possible response to Alberta’s labour shortage. While Alberta did experience a tight labour market during the 2000s, TFWs were not the only solution. The labour market may have returned to equilibrium as rising wages attracted more workers and/or employers reduced demand for workers. The government could also have moderated the pace of tar sands development as well as provincial infrastructure spending, thereby dampening labour demand.
There were also significant number of interprovincial migrants as well as groups of Albertans largely excluded from the labour force (e.g., aboriginal Albertans) who could have been attracted and/or retained—who instead were displaced by TFWs. Interestingly, MLAs continued to advocate for TFWs during the recent recession, despite rising domestic unemployment. This lends credence to the suggestion that government support for TFWs is about loosening the labour market to drive down wages.

Second, MLAs asserted that TFWs don’t threaten Canadian jobs. MLAs say the federal labour market opinion (LMO) system only allows TFWs when there are no qualified Canadian workers available. This overstates the rigor of the LMO system. The federal government does not meaningfully verify employer applications and employers have admitted to gaming the LMO system by undertaking superficial recruitment exercises.

MLAs say TFWs are more expensive than domestic workers. Given the widespread violation of TFW contracts, it is not clear that this is indeed the case. And MLAs say TFWs will return to their home country if the demand for labour slackens. Yet, during the recent recession, the overall “stock” of TFWs in Alberta did not decline significantly and employers retained TFWs when laying off Canadian workers.

Finally, MLAs argue that employers cannot exploit TFWs because TFWs have the same rights as Canadian workers. As documented by the AFL, this is clearly not true. Migrant workers face a variety of barriers to realizing their rights. Indeed, both TFWs and Canadian workers in Alberta face widespread violations of their employment rights because provincial enforcement is weak to non-existent. When this became clear, there were minor regulatory adjustments (e.g., unenforceable restrictions on recruiting fees) and educational initiatives aimed at employers and TFWs (e.g., a TFW “hotline”).

Effect of Growing Migrancy on Democracy
The growing use of TFWs has a number of potentially negative effects on democracy (using the term loosely) in Alberta. At present, between 3 and 8% of Alberta workers have no political voice because they are not citizens. In this way, lawmakers are largely unaccountable to foreign migrant workers. One implication of this dynamic is that there both are few political consequences associated with continuing the exploitation of these workers and there are few political rewards associated with protecting them. Not surprisingly, both employers and the Conservative government expect an increase in the number of TFWs during the next five years. This suggests that Alberta will have a large, vulnerable and growing group of workers with no political relationship to the state in which they work.

The growing use of foreign migrant workers also creates a two-tiered labour market, populated by citizen-workers and non-citizen-workers. The poor treatment of TFWs undermines the notion that there are basic labour and human rights that governments must meet and enforce for all citizens. TFWs are not the only target for such treatment. The government has moved to expand the secondary labour market by making child labour increasingly accessible to employers in Alberta, particularly in the restaurant and food services industry.

There has been relatively little research on the impact of TFWs on Alberta workplaces. There is evidence that TFWs displaced inter-provincial migrants as the source of new workers in Alberta prior to the recent recession. And there is evidence that TFWs displaced Canadians workers during the recent recession, particularly in low-skill work. In this way, TFWs are being used to expand the labour market and thereby possibly containing or even driving down wages in some sectors. This effect may be intensified by the federal government’s recent announcement that employers can pay some TFWs up to 15% less than the median wage rate in their region.

There is also anecdotal evidence of employers using the threat of replacement by TFWs as a means by which to grind working conditions of Canadians—such as forcing a crew of scaffolders to accept a lousy shift schedule or be replaced by migrants. There is also a significant body of evidence that the employment rights of TFWs are being violated, generally with impunity. The may be engendering a bit of broken-window syndrome, whereby violations of employment standards, unionization and workplace safety rights become the norm—both for TFWs and Canadian workers.

A subtler effect of growing migrancy is that the state is increasingly ceding control over immigration to industry. The expansion of provincial nominee programs (wherein employers nominate workers to permanent residency) means that an increasing portion of newcomers are being selected based upon their utility to industry, rather than other factors (e.g., refugee status, non-employment desirability, family reunification).

Beyond labour policy, the presence of significant numbers of differentially excluded residents weakens the social cohesion important for healthy democratic communities. For the migrant workers, their contingent presence in the community and their possession of only partial citizenship rights marginalizes them from important community participation.

This form of marginalization, in turn, undermines the development of shared values, equal opportunity, trust and reciprocity—those things that are important in building cohesive communities. Indeed, the presence of TFWs as economic competitors to Canadian workers, without accompanying social and political commonalities, can cause permanent residents to see migrant workers as part of the “other” whose interests are in competition to and in conflict with their own, thus undermining any potential for social solidarity.

I think I’d like to stop here to preserve some time for questions… or speeches or personal attacks. Thanks kindly for your time.

-- Bob Barnetson

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