Why everyone should care about the Temporary Foreign Worker Program


Photo credit: Melanie Cervantes

With recent media scandals about the abuse of temporary foreign workers and the subsequent outrage about migrant workers stealing Canadians’ jobs, Minister Jason Kenney has announced a number of changes to the Temporary Foreign Workers Program on June 20, 2014.

But these reforms are band-aid measures that maintain the legal exploitation of migrant workers. Coupled with increased Canadian Border Services Agency funding, migrant workers can now be removed more quickly – within two years. Such reforms cater to reactionary sentiments to privilege Canadians and ‘get rid of migrant workers’ without addressing the structural abuse inherent to the program. The fanfare about stricter penalties for employers is a PR stunt since employer sanctions will be based on workers’ complaints to the government (totally unlikely!) Migrant workers will continue to be indentured to a single employer, won’t have guaranteed access to social services or labour protections, and will not be granted permanent residency upon arrival.

Canada currently accepts more migrants under temporary permits than those who can immigrate permanently. Barriers to permanent residency for refugees, skilled workers and family members are increasing, while citizenship for migrants is becoming harder to get and easier to lose.

To sponsor one’s parents or grandparents, stringent income requirements have to be met. This makes family reunification a privilege for the wealthy and bars low-income migrants, mostly racialized women, from being with their families. Moreover, spouses must now arrive on a 2-year conditional probationary visa before gaining full permanent status. This increases the vulnerability of immigrant women in abusive relationships. Under the Harper regime, over 80,000 migrants have been arbitrarily detained without charge. The Refugee Exclusion Act creates a two-tier system that discriminates based on nationality and further entrenches incarceration. The number of refugee claims has decreased by 50% and the number of accepted refugees has dropped by 25%. Similarly, the number of skilled worker visas has decreased by 20%. And now the Canadian government can deport thousands of permanent residents for minor offences including traffic offenses, while the new Stealing Citizenship Act makes it possible to even revoke citizenship.

The decrease in permanent immigration and simultaneous explosion of the number of migrant workers is not, as some might contend, a reflection of a ‘broken’ immigration system. The temporary foreign worker program is a system of managed migration perfected to ensure the steady supply of cheap labour within neoliberalism while further entrenching racialized citizenship. What happens to migrant workers should matter to all of us because dispossession, labour flexibility, and hierarchical social relations are central to how capitalism and colonialism marginalize various communities.

A Labour and Immigration Model of Permanent Temporariness

“It’s modern day slavery. They dispose of the workers, just like they did to me.” – Noé Arteaga, migrant worker

Capitalism’s drive to maximize profit requires a constant search for cheap labor and effective mechanisms to control workers. “It’s not that global business does not want immigrant labor to the West,” David McNally observes in Another World Is Possible: Globalization and anti-capitalism. “It simply wants this labour on its own terms: frightened, oppressed, vulnerable.”

The denial of permanent residency is precisely what makes migrant labour precarious: it ensures legal control by bosses, which embeds labour exploitability. Migrant workers are extremely vulnerable to employer abuse – including being held captive – since any assertion of their rights can lead to deportation. In addition, as non-citizens, they fall outside the state’s regime of rights: they can be paid less than minimum wage, denied labour rights, prevented from accessing social services despite paying into them, and deported when considered dispensable. These workers therefore represent the ideal workforce: commodified and exploitable; flexible and expendable.

The devaluation of migrant labour is reinforced by the devaluation of the racialized bodies performing that labour. Though their labour has secured billions of dollars in profit for industry and is a major subsidy to the economy, the naming of migrant workers as ‘foreign’ or ‘temporary’ signals their non-belonging. Such terminology has little to do with how long these workers have lived and worked and built community in Canada; rather, it signals their position as permanent outsiders – even to the so-called national working class who is often complicit in calling for their expulsion.

Migrant workers don’t suppress wages; employers and the state do. Yet rhetoric such as ‘Canadians for Canadians jobs’ alienates migrant workers and inhibits discussions about organizing to lift up the wage floor for all workers. Racism operates as a convenient buy-in for many citizen workers who pledge loyalty to nationalist protectionism rather than transnational solidarity. It also, not coincidentally, circumvents reflection on the causes of displacement and unemployment in the global South that compels the migration of workers. Finally, Canadian complicity in local and global resource extraction from Indigenous lands and exploitation of racialized labour is what even makes possible the material conditions of the Canadian welfare state that dominant elements of the working class are clamouring to defend.

With growing anti-immigrant sentiment, fear-mongering about race-based demographic changes, and panics about job losses, migrant workers become the perfect pretext for maintaining a pool of cheap disposable labour without disturbing the centrality of whiteness in colonial Canada.

Disposability Within Colonialism and Capitalism

Though the labour and racial apartheid that marks the Temporary Foreign Worker Program is unique, the disposability that underscores the program is central to capitalism. Those who do not participate by selling their labour as a commodity – by will or coercion – or are no longer needed are expendable. Indigenous communities, homeless people, precarious workers, single mothers, seniors, and people with disabilities are all systematically targeted as disposable within capitalism.

Capitalist accumulation explicitly requires dispossession of communities from the lands on which they subsist. In settler-colonial Canada, colonialism and capitalism have been mutually reinforcing. The myth of terra nullius, for example, operates in two ways. First, Indigenous territories are alleged to be barren — what capitalists prefer referring to today as ‘dead capital’— because collective subsistence economies are deemed ‘unproductive’. Second, Indigenous people are themselves constructed as unproductive, and hence disposable, for refusing to be disciplined into the waged labour-force. The colonial state’s genocidal attempts to expropriate Indigenous lands and assimilate Indigenous nations are linked to capitalism’s attempt to drive out Indigenous modes of cooperative production and stewardship that are a direct threat to its expansion.

Women’s reproductive and domestic labour is also grossly devalued and invisiblized within capitalism. Single mothers become marginalized as ‘unemployed’ and ‘uncontributing’ when they are in fact, as scholar Silvia Frederici observes, strengthening a key source of capitalist accumulation by reproducing the very labour power on which it depends. Ableism similarly dictates the norms of productivity and functionality under capitalism. Since capitalism has linked human worth to an individual’s ability to produce and have their labor extracted for profit, people with disabilities and seniors are cast as ‘burdensome’ and ‘worthless’.

Because capitalism defines what can and is valued as labour, it ties human worth to wage-labour productivity. While fighting to improve the conditions of low-wage workers, we have to firmly reject coercive wage-labour within capitalism as our sole and primary humanizing logic. An ethics of transformation cannot be founded on the very basis of our exploitation.

Migrant workers are more than pawns in discussions about the economy and labour shortages. Similarly, low-income women, Indigenous communities, those in informal street economies, differently abled and aging folks, and those providing domestic or care labour are also all forcibly disciplined, devalued and stigmatized. Human dignity and self-determination are inherent, not dependent on how much or how well we are labouring to serve the colonial Canadian state or the capitalist economy. When we recognize that we are all similarly impacted – though not uniformly – by the structural violences of the system, we can strengthen our solidarities to dismantle them and, instead, nurture alternate socio-economic relations that are land and place-based, kinship-oriented, premised on need not profit, and that value self-management rather than alienation from one’s production.