Tuesday, May 2, 2017

"Canadians first" rhetoric is icky and untrue

In mid-April, the provincial and federal governments announced a new “Employer Liaison Service” which connects Alberta employers who seeking staff with unemployed Albertans.

This service is intended, in part, to dampen employer concerns about federal government’s recent refusal to process applications from employers seeking temporary foreign workers (TFWs) in 29 high-skill occupations.

The temporary foreign worker program is certainly a program in need of reform. Its expansion in the mid-2000s created a large category of extremely vulnerable workers (whose residency was contingent upon their employment) and whose employers (naturally) exploited and endangered them.

There is also some suggestion that the TFW program loosened the labour market unnecessarily, resulting in wage suppression and, perhaps, reducing the opportunity of Canadians from traditionally disadvantaged group to access employment.

While policy change is due, some context is useful here. Of the 10,000 TFWs that employers brought to Alberta in 2016, only 400 were in the 29 high-skill occupations that the federal government recently added to its “do not process” list for the next two years (I've heard a couple of different versions of the numbers but the differences aren't really substantive). So this is totally a symbolic move with little practical effect on the labour market or employers.

Alberta Tory MP Matt Jeneroux tepidly supported the change, telling CBC:
We're intrigued that they're looking at Alberta finally, but let's point out that it's a step in the right direction. But that being said, it's a small one.
It is important to note that it was Jeneroux’s own party that opened the flood gates to foreign workers in 2006, both through expanding the TFW program and by signing dozens of new free trade agreements that have labour mobility provisions. I couldn't find any comment on the changes from former TFW kingpin and now Alberta-Tory-leader-in-hiding Jason Kenney. You can watch the Alberta Federation of Labour's response below (I hope--the link was kind of hinky).

The federal Liberal government has been pushing a “Canadians first” message around this change. For example, Employment, Workforce Development and Labour Minister Patty Hajdu recently said:
The focus of the federal government with the temporary foreign worker program is always to make sure Canadians have the first crack at available jobs, and then after that is done, then to look at supporting employers with prolonged labour shortages in very specific areas.
I certainly see the political attraction of framing these changes as “Canadians first”. Critics of the change appear to be against “Canadians” or “jobs for Canadians”. But this framing has some problems.

First, it isn’t true. There were over 200,000 unemployed Albertans in March. Yet, in 2016, the feds let employers hire 10,000 TFWs (mostly in low skill occupations) in Alberta. (There were also over 30,000 foreign workers in Alberta under various international labour mobility programs.)

Basically, there have been no meaningful reforms to address (1) inappropriate hirings of TFWs, or (2) exploitation of TFWs. Indeed, the program continues on pretty much as it always has. In theory, employers have had to “prove” there are no Albertans available to work. But that process is widely (and correctly) perceived as a joke and easy to manipulate.

Second, this “Canadians first” framing comes off as xenophobic. It is a slightly nicer version of “fureners is stealin' ar jobs”. The history of the TFW program is that foreign workers were invited here by employers with the blessing of the federal and provincial Tories. Then they were treated terribly. Trying (however subtly or inadvertently) to shift responsibility for the problems of the TFW program onto the TFWs is profoundly unfair.

The announcement is also deeply cynical. The changes announced affect about 4% of TFW hires in Alberta. If TFWs pose a threat to Canadians requiring a federal response, shouldn't the response by meaningful? For example, why not eliminate the TFW program entirely?

An interesting question is why do Alberta employers, given an unemployment rate of 8.4%, continue to seek TFWs? The rationale advanced by business and government for the TFW program has historically been one of labour shortage. That employers continue to hire thousands of TFWs in the face of a huge labour surplus suggests that labour shortages are a red herring.

Really what employers want is cheap and compliant workers. Whether governments ought to help them access such a workforce—given its potential to reduce wages and safety for all workers—appears to be a question the federal government is reluctant to engage head on.

-- Bob Barnetson

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