The construction of migrant work and workers by Alberta legislators, 2000-2011
Jason Foster and Bob Barnetson, Athabasca University
Transforming Citizenship: Ethnicity, Transnationalism and Belonging in Canada Conference
Edmonton. 25 October 2013
Like many jurisdictions, Alberta’s population of international migrant workers grew significantly between 2000 and 2011 (Foster 2012). An earlier examination Jason and I performed on the discourse around temporary and permanent international migrants hinted at a seeming contradiction: the government members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) often seemed bullish on migrant work, but critical of migrant workers (Barnetson and Foster 2013).
The study I’ll be presenting today is a narrative analysis of MLA statements. Narrative analysis examines how stories categorize, name and label things and, in doing so, construct a particular view of the world. The view these politicians construct of migrant work and migrant workers is important because this view informs public policy—in effect, state action and inaction—which affects all workers.
What our analysis found were four main narratives. MLAs were quite supportive of migrant work, asserting (1) that it was economically necessary and (2) that it didn’t pose any threat to Canadian workers. By contrast, MLAs were critical of international migrant workers, asserting that (3) they had questionable occupational, linguistic or cultural skills and that (4) their transience caused negative social and economic impacts on Alberta.
In short, we found pretty clear evidence of seemingly contradictory views of migrant work and workers among Alberta policy makers. So then we tried to make sense of this contradiction. What I propose to do today is give you a brief overview of the evidence for four narratives as well as our initial thoughts on how this seeming contradiction can be understood.
Migrant Work as Economically Necessary
MLAs repeatedly asserted that (1) there was a labour shortage that (2) had to be addressed to maintain economic growth by (3) increasing the number of temporary and permanent Canadian and international migrant workers. The clearest expression of this view is in the 2006 throne speech:
His Honour: …Alberta will take immediate steps to address labour shortages that threaten economic growth. …The government will develop a new strategy to increase awareness of Alberta as a destination of choice for skilled immigrants, and it will expand immigrant settlement services and language training and make it easier for foreign-trained professionals to work in Alberta (Alberta 2006).
The view that migrant work is economically necessary supposes Alberta’s labour shortage was an absolute shortage—there were no more Canadian workers available. Examining unemployment among Canadians in traditional sending provinces as well as among traditionally under-represented groups suggests this was not true. Instead, what Alberta faced was a relative labour shortage—there were no more Canadian workers willing to make themselves available for prevailing wage rates and working conditions.
This is an important distinction because it identifies a feedback loop between labour shortages and migrant work. The loop begins when employers don’t raise wages and don’t improve working conditions to attract Canadian workers because they know that international migrant workers will accept the conditions employers are offering. This keeps Canadian workers out of the workforce and thus creates the so-called labour shortage that is used to justify expanding the number of international migrant workers. In turn, growth in the ranks of international migrant workers allow employers to maintain existing wage and working conditions, thereby perpetuating the so-called labour shortage. Employers benefit from this arrangement because it minimizes their labour costs.
Migrant Work as No Threat to Canadians
MLAs also presented the growth in international migrant workers posing no threat to the employment of Canadians. This assertion is premised upon MLAs’ position that there was a labour shortage (so there were jobs for everyone) and MLAs’ belief that the federal Labour Market Opinion (LMO) process prevented employers from replacing Canadians with international migrant workers:
Mr. Cardinal: The first priority for… our government… is to hire Albertans first wherever possible, Canadians second…. When an employer has exhausted that, then they have an opportunity to apply through the federal government to bring in foreign workers…. It’s definitely not a top priority for industries, definitely not a top priority for our government… who like to see our own local people working first (Alberta 2005b). then-Minister of Human Resources and Employment Mike Cardinal
In addition to the question about whether there was an absolute or relative shortage of Canadian workers, there is significant evidence that employers could and did game the federal LMO process (Auditor General 2009, Foster and Taylor 2011).
MLAs also routinely presented international migrant work as a temporary measure:
Dr. Oberg: Lastly, the whole idea behind a temporary foreign worker is… to take these workers, bring them over here for a temporary period of time when they are needed, when there is the workforce boom that is going on, when we can’t supply it, and then at the end of three years they have to go home. They cannot stay. They do not become landed immigrants. They must go home at that time (Alberta 2005a).
It is true that individual international migrant workers must leave Canada four years. But, it is also true that, as a group, international migrant workers have become a permanent and growing feature of Canada’s labour market. For example, Alberta’s cohort of international migrants under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) increased from 11,376 in 2003 to 68,339 in 2012 (Citizenship and Immigration Canada 2013). Even during the recession of 2008 to 2010, the number of temporary foreign workers (TFWs) did not decline and, in fact, TFWs displaced interprovincial migrants as the main source of additional workers during that time (Alberta 2011a, 2011b).
Migrant Workers as Unskilled
Interestingly, MLAs had very little to say about migrant workers. They said almost nothing about interprovincial migrants in the entire 12 years of data. When MLAs did talk about international migrant workers, they were highly critical of these workers’ occupational skills:
Mr. Norris: … I know that you have cab drivers who say: I’m an engineer from a specific country; I can’t get a job. Don’t believe everything you hear, hon. member, because we make every effort to allow them to get their training certificates upgraded or pass to what level they need to be. I don’t know if there’s a suggestion being made that we should just take things at face value, because I wouldn’t do that… (Alberta 2004).
Dr. Oberg: We don’t necessarily want someone saying that they are a welder in a particular country, arriving here, and having no usable trades that can be done. So they are going to be certified in the country before they come over here (Alberta 2005a).
Mr. Lukaszuk: …This ministry has programs in place that assist foreign credentialed individuals to enter our workforce. At the same time, we have to make sure that we don’t jeopardize in any way the standards that we are accustomed to have over here (Alberta 2010).
MLAs also questioned the validity of medical credentials of permanent international migrants. But such concerns were mediated by these migrants’ country of origin. For example, medically trained international migrants from the UK were often given a pass if their skills weren’t quite up to snuff. And American migrant workers were also seen as more desirable that international migrants from “across (the) oceans”:
Mr. Lukaszuk: (O)ften when we think about foreign workers, we tend to drift away across oceans. I strongly suggest to Alberta employers to give our neighbors to the south first opportunity at any jobs in Alberta. These workers from the United States are not only our partners, our friends, and our allies, but they also have similar occupational health and safety employment standards. There are no language barriers. At the end of the day that’s what neighbours do for neighbours. If we have a surplus of jobs – and they obviously have an economy that will take a long time to recover – we should welcome them with open arms (Alberta 2011c).
MLAs also raised questions about international migrant workers’ cultural and linguistic fluency and, in fact, sometimes attributed the exploitation of international migrant workers in part to the workers’ limited understanding of their rights:
“It’s tough for somebody that comes from a totally different country and different rules and regulations to feel at home on a short-term basis,” Employment and Immigration Minister Hector Goudreau said last week.
“Many, many don’t know their rights. They don’t know all their responsibilities. They often have a hard time with language” (Calgary Herald 2008).
Overall, international migrant workers are framed as less desirable than Canadian workers. Interestingly, this governmental discourse about undesirable international migrants runs contrary to the behaviour of employers, who went out of their way to hire such workers over Canadians.
Migrants Workers as Societally Harmful
Finally, late in the period of study, some MLAs raised concerns about the transience of international migrant workers. Specifically, they were concerned that temporary international migrant workers do not financially or socially invest in Alberta:
Mr. Lukaszuk: …Well, transient communities would be one answer, individuals who do not purchase houses, cars, who don’t invest in our economy but send remittances back home. There is a social impact on families over here, but just having come back from the Philippines, I had the opportunity to see the other, those families who are left behind by temporary foreign workers. The impact is economic and moral, and it’s immense (Alberta 2011d).
Framing international migrants’ reluctance to socially or financially invest in Alberta as a choice or inherent trait of migrant workers—rather than recognizing this behaviour as the result government-imposed residency limits—demonizes contextually quite rational behaviour by international migrants and essentially blames the victim.
On the surface, the four narratives MLAs advance about migrant work and workers seem to be contradictory: migrant work is good but migrant workers are bad. Yet, viewed together, these narratives can be reconciled as an effort to politically justify growth in Alberta’s international migrant workforce.
Misrepresenting the nature of the labour shortage justified initial increases in international migrants, while providing employers access to a lower-cost and docile labour force. Resistance to increased numbers of international migrants among Canadian workers was overcome by claiming migrant workers posed no labour market threat because they were temporary, they had limited labour mobility, and they could only come if there were no Canadians available.
At the same time, MLAs dehumanized international migrant workers. They were discussed in solely economic terms. They were characterized as unskilled—a characterization with racialized undertones. They were said to pose a threat to Canadian communities—although not Canadian jobs (“don’t worry about those!” say MLAs). Dehumanizing international migrant workers makes them an “other”—a group distinct from Canadians and whose partial citizenship (Sharma 2006, Vosko 2010) and poor treatment (AF 2007, 2009) is justified by their limited economic role in Canada.
So what we see then, are two layers to MLA statements. In part, their statements are political activities designed to manage policy consent and dissent on a day-to-day basis. The seeming contradictions are, in part, a response to different kinds of criticism that MLAs face.
But, when you look at MLA statements over a longer period, there is coherence to be found because the seemingly contradictory sets of narratives are, in fact, two complementary elements of a broader legitimization project. Specifically, MLA narratives construct a generic, racialized other to justify state and employer actions designed to advance capital’s interests (in low-cost, docile labour) over the interests of both Canadian and international workers.
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