Friday, May 17, 2013

Presentation: Tory message management around migrant workers in Alberta

Tory message management around migrant workers in Alberta
Parkland Institute Oil and Social Democracy Speaker's Series
May 16, 2013, Edmonton
Bob Barnetson, Athabasca University

As Jason noted earlier, Alberta employers significantly increased their use of temporary foreign workers (TFWs) between 2000 and 2011. That increase has caused a fair bit of controversy, both around the mistreatment of migrant worker and the potential of migrant workers to displace Canadians workers. Jason Foster and I have examined how Tory MLAs managed criticism of that growth in statements they’ve made in both the legislature and the media.

What we found was that MLAs used three narratives to manage the political pressure around TFWs:
  1. labour shortages require migrant workers, 
  2. migrant workers don’t threaten Canadian jobs and 
  3. migrants are not being exploited. 
Of course, none of these things are actually true. They’re merely an effort to legitimize a policy that cheapens labour for employers. The full article outlining this research will soon be available from the Journal of International Migration and Integration but I’m going to cover the highlights today.

Labour shortage
Things start out back in the early 2000s with MLAs asserting that Alberta faces a significant labour shortage caused by a booming economy and an aging population. And migrant workers are the solution to this problem. For example, we have Mark Norris back in 2004 saying there is no alternative to migrant workers:
Mr. Norris: … The simple fact of the matter is that our economy is growing so much faster than our workforce that no matter what we do as a government… it’s not going to catch up. So immigration is an answer to that puzzle. (Hansard, 31 March 2004)
Tory MLAs sometime characterized this shortage as a “good problem to have” that flowed from prudent government policy. We again turn to Mark Norris for some breathless enthusiasm:
Mr. Norris: …this isn’t good news; this is absolutely great news for Alberta. Because of the decision of our Premier and the class of ’93 to signal to the world that we were going to be deficit free and debt free, Alberta has become the business centre of Canada and North America. (Hansard, 13 March 2002)
So a labour shortage is great news and migrants are the only solution.
Canadians first
Despite this so-called “good news” story, there was significant opposition—suggesting Albertans are more politically savvy than our electoral results would lead you to believe. Many Albertans were concerned that migrant workers were displacing Canadian workers and driving down wages. MLAs responded by asserting that the federal Labour Market Opinion (LMO) process ensures migrant workers could only be hired when there are no qualified Canadians available. Here we have then-Minister of Human Resources and Employment Mike Cardinal reassuring us all is well:
Mr. Cardinal: …Mr. Speaker, employers first of all have to exhaust all avenues in relation to getting local employees in place and if they can’t do that, then they have to apply to the federal government’s temporary foreign workers’ program. It’s a challenging and complicated process and can be costly to the employer, so I’m sure and I have confidence in the employers in Alberta that every opportunity will be given first to Albertans and Canadians, aboriginal people, and people with disabilities. (Hansard, 8 March 2005)
MLAs also blamed Canadian workers for labour shortages. For example, then-Minister of Employment, Immigration and Industry Iris Evans suggested that Canadian workers don’t want jobs in remote locations so employers have no choice but to hire TFWs:
Ms. Evans: Mr. Speaker, it’s quite correct that there are frequently workers that are not employed where other jobs exist, and simply put, in many cases these workers refuse or choose not to take jobs in remote or outlying locations. (Hansard, 17 May 2007)
Further, MLAs argued that migrant workers would not displace Canadian workers because migrant workers cost more to employ. And then-Minister of Infrastructure Lyle Oberg asserted that TFWs were a temporary workforce and would depart when they were no longer needed.
Dr. Oberg: …Lastly, the whole idea behind a temporary foreign worker is… to protect our workforce. It’s 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. (Hansard, 27 April 2005).
When the Tories were asked what contingency plans were in place to deal with TFWs should the economic boom end, they mocked this concern. Then, when the boom (predictably) went bust, the Tories indicated that it was up to employers to determine whether TFWs would be kept on during a work shortage. In fact, then-Minister of Employment and Immigration Hector Goudreau rather bizarrely asserted that preferentially retaining Canadians workers would be discriminatory:
Mr. Goudreau: The federal government does not have specific rules for who should be laid off. All workers in Canada have the same rights, and to lay off a worker based on national origin could be discriminating. If a business is struggling and layoffs are required, the decision as to who is laid off is up to the employer. It’s strictly a business decision. (Hansard, 5 May 2009)
So much for protecting Canadian jobs. 

I don’t see no exploitation
There was also significant concern raised about the exploitation of migrant workers. Basically, migrants depended upon their employment to stay in the country and thus were more vulnerable than Canadian workers. Government MLAs poo-pooed these concerns by asserting TFWs had the same rights as Canadian workers.

Then the stories of exploitation started rolling in. At first, MLAs framed employer violations as unusual events caused by employer ignorance—because that is apparently an excuse for violating the law, if you’re an employer. Here’s Iris Evans again framing the state’s role as mostly to educate employers and workers:
Ms Evans: …We hold workshops for employers, so they know what our expectations are. We, in fact, school the brokers that might want to do business in Alberta about what our laws and our expectations are. (Hansard, 29 November 2007)
When the Alberta Federation of Labour documented widespread violations affecting TFWs, MLAs eventually acknowledged violations could occur but they continued to emphasize the root cause was ignorance of the law. And who was the ignorant party? Why, it was the TFWs themselves. Again with Iris Evans:
While these workers are protected by the same laws as other Alberta workers, they may be more vulnerable to exploitation. They may, for example, be unfamiliar with Alberta law (Iris Evans in Leduc Representatives, 15 August 2008). Glen, B. (2008, August 15). ‘Employers aided by foreign work program’, Leduc Representative, p. 7, Leduc
Yeah, because that’s the reason employer’s don’t pay them overtime or a minimum wage.

Evan’s successor Hector Goudreau also blamed migrant workers for their exploitation. His solution was that employers could provide non English­­‑speaking workers with information about their employment rights:
Mr. Goudreau: Well, Mr. Speaker, with our temporary foreign workers we find that there was a lack of information that was available to them. …The member opposite is asking whether it’s available in different languages. Well, at this stage, Mr. Speaker, and I can say that it is available basically only in English. Those people that are working with them: there are usually people that can do interpretation that are working with the group. There has to be a communications method with temporary foreign workers. Through the boss, then, some of that information is available. (Hansard, 21 April 2008)
This, of course, completely ignores the reality of work where employers have incentives to violate workers’ rights, which is much easier to do if the workers don’t know those rights!

For example, during a 2008 investigation of deaths of two foreign workers in the oil sands, the government discovered that 120 Chinese TFWs had been paid only 12% of their wages. Money was paid into bank accounts opened jointly by each employee and Chinese company. Once the company had created a paper trail indicating payment had been made, it then scooped the money back out.

A year later, government statistics revealed that almost three quarters of the businesses that employed temporary foreign workers and which were inspected were violating employment standards—failing to pay for overtime, statutory holidays and general record-keeping.

Bizarrely, then-Minister of Employment and Immigration Thomas Lukaszuk characterized this report as “…a really good news story,” since it means people are reporting workplace problems to the government. He goes onto to explain that “They know what their rights are, they know what their privileges are as Alberta employees and they're valid.” Under questioning, Lukaszuk then deflected blame onto the federal government.
Mr. Lukaszuk: …First of all, Mr. Speaker, this is not a provincial program; it’s a federal program. This shouldn’t even be asked in this House. We have no means of abolishing the foreign worker program. It’s a federal program. We have no means of opting out of it either because there is no possibility for provinces to opt out. Now, we also have no choice on whether these workers stay or don’t stay over here because visas are issued by the federal government. (Hansard, 18 March 2010)
The Minister did not engage with questions about whether TFWs might not complain because they feared being sent back to their home country.

Evaluating the Narratives 
Each of the narratives MLAs use to deflect criticism around TFWs are very problematic.

The notion that Alberta had a labour shortage ignores that labour shortages indicate a relative (rather than absolute) shortage of workers. Basically, a labour shortage occurs when no more workers are prepared to join the labour force at prevailing wage rates and working conditions. So, higher wages and better working conditions may induce more workers to join the labour force, especially if there are readily available sources of additional labour such Alberta’s aboriginal population, discouraged workers and interprovincial migrants from traditional sending regions such as Atlantic Canada, which continued to have high rates of unemployment during this period.

The government could have left employers to figure out how to induce more workers to join the workforce. The government could also have dampened labour demand by moderating the pace of oil sands development and provincial infrastructure spending. Instead, the government chose to accept employer claims of a labour shortage and encouraged, facilitated and justified the hiring of TFWs. In effect, MLA assertions that there was a labour shortage that could only be solved by migrant workers reflects a policy preference for loosening the labour market and thereby cheapen employer labour costs.

MLAs’ faith in the integrity of the federal LMO process was misplaced. There was lots evidence that the LMO system lacked rigor and was gamed by employers. Of greater concern is that temporary workers aren’t temporary. While individual migrant workers may come and go, Alberta migrant workers have become a permanent and necessary component of the labour market. Further, there is mounting anecdotal evidence that a large number of Alberta TFWs don’t return home when their visas expire—they remain as non-status immigrants.

Growth in the number of non-status immigrants needing “under the table” work may create a long-term loosening of portions of the labour market, thereby limiting wage growth. These issues—a weak LMO process, employers preferring exploitable migrant workers, and the creation of a pool of non-status immigrants—are evident in guest-worker programs across the world. It is unclear if MLAs knew this. But they certainly could and should have known.

Finally, the assertion that employers cannot exploit TFWs because TFWs possess the same rights as Canadian workers proved untrue. There is an important difference between possessing rights and realizing them. Migrant workers face a variety of unique and well known barriers to realizing their rights. For example, their residency is contingent upon continued employment, they effectively cannot change employers, and (in many cases) they face significant language barriers and social isolation. These conditions are not conducive to generating complaints.

The justifying narratives used by Tory MLAs reflect an effort to “manage the message” rather than taking action about the abuse of migrant workers. For example, government MLAs took great pains to highlight that Alberta was in need of “high-skill” workers even though, in 2010, 55% of Alberta migrant workers were classified as low-skilled workers. Focusing on the higher skill workers muted potential political backlash over flooding the labour market with workers in order to suppress wages by evoking images of engineers, skilled construction trades, and computer analysts rather than hotel housekeepers, fast food cashiers and cooks. This is an act of political sanitization.

It also shielded employers from public accountability for their decisions to utilize vulnerable labour in ways that suppress wage growth and allow union avoidance. Pairing the argument that TFWs were necessary and unavoidable with the assurance that employers will act fairly and legally erects a rhetorical shield for employers against public wrath over the issue. In this way, the government is legitimizing employer behaviour that might otherwise be considered unacceptable by the public.

-- Bob Barnetson

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