Increased use of guest workers wrong approach in tight labour market

So, federal Immigration Minister Monte Solberg is tired of waiting in line to get his double-double at Tim Horton's.

For those who missed it, that was one of the rationales Solberg gave when he announced new measures aimed at making it easier for employers in Alberta and B.C. to bring temporary foreign workers into the country.

Solberg's comment was obviously meant as a joke - but the policy direction he outlined at his news conference in Edmonton is no laughing matter.

In fact, by lowering the bar for employers and making it easier for them to hire temporary foreign workers as a first choice, rather than a last resort, I'm afraid Solberg has set Canada in motion down a very dangerous road.

In particular, I'm worried the federal Conservatives are laying the groundwork for the creation of an underclass of workers in this country - a class of guest workers who won't have the same rights and protections in the workplace that Canadian workers take for granted.

I'm also worried that by making it almost laughably easy for employers to import foreign workers in an eye-popping 170 occupational categories, the Harper government is handing employers a big stick that, at least in some cases, will be used to demand concessions, displace Canadian workers and keep wages down.

Think I'mover-reacting? Consider the evidence.

Just three months ago, the manager of a nursing home in Kelowna laid off 70 personal care aides when they refused to accept major rollbacks to their wages and benefits. He is now attempting to fill the vacancies he created with temporary foreign workers -and thanks to Solberg's new rules, his job just got easier.

Similar stories are also coming out of the oil sands. I've received numerous calls from tradesmen who say their work has mysteriously dried up at the same time that their former employers have taken on increased numbers of temporary foreign workers.

So when the government says temporary workers will only be brought into the country "when there is no one available to do the job in Canada", a growing number of Alberta workers are saying that doesn't mesh with their personal experience.

None of this should have come as a surprise to Mr. Solberg and his Conservative colleagues.

The experience from other countries that have relied on "guest worker" programs to deal with real or perceived labour shortages is as extensive as it is sobering.

Countries as diverse as the United States, Germany, France, Switzerland, Kuwait and Singapore have all experimented with these programs: and they've all had to deal with the same negative effects.

Among other problems, guest worker programs have led to the establishment of ethnically-based "job ghettos"; they have sparked tension between foreign and domestic workers; and they have resulted in often rampant exploitation and of foreign workers by employers.

The big reason why programs like the one Solberg is expanding have proven to be so problematic is that they bring workers into the country on temporary basis as opposed to welcoming them as full-fledged immigrants and prospective citizens.

Landed immigrants and citizens have rights - perhaps most importantly, the right of mobility. If they don't like the way an employer is treating them or how much they're being paid, they can vote with their feet.

Workers brought into the country under the temporary foreign worker program, on the other hand, have no such rights. In a sense, they are hostages to the employers that sponsored them - and as such they are vulnerable exploitation.

Solberg says we shouldn't worry about abuse by employers because federal regulations promise that temporary foreign workers will be paid the "going Canadian rate" and because these workers will be protected by the same employment standards systems that cover Canadian workers.

But who exactly decides the "going rate"? And does it include the value of benefits enjoyed by Canadian workers?

Also, given that Solberg has put absolutely no enforcement mechanisms in place, how can we be sure that employers aren't ignoring the rules and paying temporary foreign workers less than the minimum wage - as evidence suggests they were doing recently with imported construction workers on a Vancouver railway project?

As for Solberg's reassurance that foreign workers will be protected by provincial employment standards systems: is he kidding? Here in Alberta, we have 55 employment standards officers to police the concerns of nearly two million workers.

Even more importantly, investigations are only launched when an employee lodges a formal complaint. Does Solberg really think that any temporary foreign worker - in Canada at the pleasure of their employers - would actually ever do that?

The big irony in all this is that the current push for increased foreign workers is coming from a Conservative government that purports to be a "defender of the market".

What the market in Alberta is telling employers today is that they need to increase wages to attract and retain employees. And it's also saying that businesses should be putting some projects on hold until prices come down.

Unfortunately, Solberg only has ears for business owners who want him to intervene in the labour market. In a sense, they've convinced the government to help them defy the economic laws of gravity.

As usual, the market is the wise, all-knowing force that can't be ignored - except of course when it's actually helping average working stiffs.

So in the end, what can be done to address Alberta's tight labour market? Contrary to those who support beefed-up guest workers programs, there is no silver bullet.

Part of the answer lies in better training for Canadians to meet the demand for skilled workers and increased wages to attract people from parts of the country with higher levels of unemployment.

Another part of the answer lies in slowing the pace of development - especially in the oil sands.

Finally, any real solution needs to include increases in real immigration, as opposed to ill-conceived guest worker programs: because if foreign workers are good enough to come here and serve us coffee or build our homes, they're good enough to stay as citizens.

By Gil McGowan, AFL President
November 2006

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