Temporary Foreign Workers Program in Canada: Modern Day Slavery

We are living in an era when corporations and labour/workers crisscross the globe in an ever ending queues: corporations want to increase their wealth and profit margin, while workers want a standard of living that enables them provide for themselves and their families.

Corporations have rights and are growing their monopolistic power while workers are dispersed and increasingly more vulnerable. They form part of the same system and occupy the same “transnational space”. This is globalization.

Migration has always responded to the state of the world economy and the distribution of wealth and resources across the Globe. For the most part, populations move from areas of conflict and scarcity to areas that can provide safety and stability, access to arable land, water and other resources. Similar to what has happened in rural Canada, people who can no longer live off the land due to debt, drought and/or the inability to get just prices for their produce will move to the cities in search of job opportunities, education, health services etc.

The outcome of 500 years of colonial rule and unequal development is that 1 percent of the world’s population now controls 40% of total global assets, and that the disparity between rich and poor is growing dramatically. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), 1.53 billion workers, half of the world’s labour mass was living under extreme insecurity in 2009, the majority in the Global South. Of that number, 630 million receive a salary of less than $1.25 per day, while the global number of unemployed had risen to 205 million.

This unequal development has propelled millions into forced migration. These migrants are disproportionately unskilled, unemployed or underemployed. They are poorly represented at the high end of the labour market; they experience discrimination, racism and marginalization; they do not benefit from adequate political or civic participation. 

Since 9/11, security measures around migration have exacerbated the criminalization of migrants and suspicion and prejudice in the minds of the media and the public. Migrants have grown more vulnerable, and unprotected.

Most people in the Global North are not aware that the wealth of northern economies was built on hundreds of years of exploitation of resources and the use of slave or indentured labour from the Global South. While slavery has been abolished, the need for cheap resources and cheap labour has not and continues unabated, creating conditions for the depletion of natural resources and the exploitation of workers across the globe.

Although there is a marked increase in south-south migration, particularly to those countries that are experiencing industrialization such as Brazil, South Africa, there is a percentage of southern migration still moving north.

Global expansion of migration
Temporary Foreign Workers or Just in Time Labour

For many countries in the global South, the export of migrant labour is a means to lessen the burden of unemployment and earn much needed remittances (monies sent back to their families in their home countries).

For the destination countries, migration meets rising labour demand, restrains wage inflation, weakens the bargaining power of unions and boosts consumption.

Migrant labour is now the fastest growing stream of immigration on a global scale, superseding permanent immigration. Everywhere, workers are increasingly tied into a short term, temporary system that allows them to migrate on a temporary basis and under precarious conditions, with little access to rights, social security or health benefits in the country of destination. 

Since 2006, the flow of temporary migrant workers has tripled in Canada and around the globe. Migrant workers with temporary status now exceed the number of economic immigrants who are granted permanent resident status.

In 2011, Canada admitted 156,077 economic immigrants as permanent residents, and 190,769 migrant workers with temporary status.

Similar to the guest workers programs implemented in the United States, Switzerland and Germany in the 1940, the temporary migrant worker programs are becoming the norm around the world as a way to mitigate the low-birth rate in industrialized counties and labour shortage, without burdening the state with obligations of citizenship, provide educational, health or other services and to maximize labour market flexibility for employers.

“Just in time” Labour management system corresponds to the need of corporations to have labour at their disposal when needed in which materials or products are produced or acquired only as demand requires. Just in Time approach to managing inventory has become increasingly popular in the early 21st century as suppliers and retailers collaborate to try to control inventory costs. It is the cross border equivalent of a Temp agency. For workers it means insecurity, lack of protection and a high level of vulnerability to layoff.

Temporary migration is expanding and irregular or illegal migrants continue to rise. Worldwide the number of migrant workers could reach 405 million by 2020. There are significantly more women migrants than before, many in an acute state of vulnerability. The growing pressure to migrate due to economic necessities or climate change far outstrips the existence of legal opportunities, which explains the increase in deregulated or “underground” migration. 

The world economy is increasingly deregulated, dominated by large multinational corporations that control a vast empire of resources. In record speed, corporations can transfer assets and production to countries that offer the advantage of cheap labour, weak environmental controls, weak health and safety controls, weak human rights controls, low tax regimes, and the abundance of cheap resources, including energy. Corporations need an unfettered access to domestic markets in order to maximize profits around the globe, but they also need an international legal framework to protect their assets.

The growing ability of corporations to override governments and public interest is protected by a series of binding agreements, known as free trade agreements or investment protection agreements (FIPAs). Increasing mobility and erasing borders and government regulations are central to their success. Protected by literally hundreds of Free Trade and Investment Agreements that have been signed in the last ten years, multinationals can place commercial interests ahead of people and the environment, and receive generous compensation if their future profits are threatened. Despite their name, free trade agreements among nations have less to do about trade, than they have to do with expanding corporate control over resources, labour, public services and markets.

Who is protected from discrimination based on nationality?

Today, the world is caught up in a giant web of agreements that protect multinationals from discrimination on the basis of nationality. In other words, multinationals are given free reign to compete and put smaller national or local firms out of business, establish their monopoly over goods and services, and sue governments if their interests are hindered by legislation that impact their bottom line, even if that legislation is enacted to protect public health or the environment.

According to Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFAIT), when multinationals cross borders, they enjoy legally binding rights to “fair and equitable treatment according to a basic international minimal standard. It allows for the free repatriation of profits and other payments in and out of the host country without delay”.

On the other hand, when migrant cross borders they do not enjoy legally binding rights to “fair and equitable treatment”. On the contrary, the 1990 Convention on All Migrant Workers and their families and other ILO conventions that attempt to regulate the treatment of migrant workers have not been ratified by Canada or any other major industrialized nation.

Moreover, the mechanisms to implement international human rights treaties or conventions are chronically under funded. In 2006, the ILO developed the Multilateral Framework on Labour Migration in order to establish standards and get a fairer deal for migrant workers in the global economy. But it remains a mere set of guidelines for the more effective management of migration. Protecting the human rights of migrants is becoming a pressing priority as new forms of migration, including the growth in climate refugees warrants changes in legal and normative frameworks.

The task is urgent.