Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Justifying migrant workers in Alberta

Monday, the ministers responsible for skill development in the western provinces issued a joint communique. After dissing the federal government's new Canada Jobs Grant and the usual platitudes about "best practices", they made yet another pitch for more (im)migrant workers:
Though making sure Canadians are first in line for the jobs that will come with a growing Western economy, we recognize that attracting foreign talent is one key element to our overall success and our erasing potential skills shortages. Immigration will help fill the gap for all three provinces. We will work together to influence federal immigration policy and program decisions to ensure immigration and in particular economic immigration and temporary foreign worker programs meet the needs of the West. (p.1).
The recent assertion that temporary and permanent foreign migrant workers are the solution to the labour shortage goes back to about 2001 (although obviously Canada's use of such workers has a longer history). This summer, Jason Foster and I published an article entitled The political justification of migrant workers in Alberta, Canada.

In this article, we examine how Alberta government MLAs justified the (ab)use of migrant workers from 2000 to 2011 and interrogate the three narratives that emerged: (1) labour shortages require migrant workers, (2) migrants do not threaten Canadian jobs and (3) migrants are not being exploited. Close scrutiny of each narrative demonstrates them to be largely invalid and this suggests a significant disconnect between the real and espoused reasons for the significant changes to labour market policy, changes that advantage employers and disadvantage both Canadian and foreign workers.

Given the continued interest in permanent and temporary migration by the federal and provincial governments, this article suggests we should be cautious about accepting at face value government statements about migration. For example, are there currently unfilled jobs in Alberta? Yes. But we should acknowledge that labour shortages are relative, rather than absolute, events. 

Specifically, the current domestic labour force represents those workers prepared to accept work for prevailing wages and working conditions. According to classical economic theory, better wages and working conditions ought to bring about an equilibrium between supply and demand without further government intervention in the labour market. 

Conservative governments (who generally buy into classical economic theory, even if they don't walk the talk) intervening to supply more migrant workers seems likely to result in wage suppression via creating a glut in supply.  Such an intervention benefits employers (who realize lower labour costs and thus higher profits). 

And thus we ought to question the truth behind statements like this one, which talks about increased migration benefitting businesses and consumers (who are often other businesses) while ignoring the impact of the policy upon, say, "workers" and "citizens".
It was the vision of premiers Christy Clark of B.C., Alison Redford of Alberta, and Brad Wall of Saskatchewan that led to our working group being tasked to build on the New West Partnership by finding ways to co-operate and make it easier for businesses and consumers to benefit from economic growth across Canada’s West.
-- Bob Barnetson

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