Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
September 14, 2009
Good enough to work here? Then let them stay
Journey to Justice
As the son of an immigrant, I grew up with the stories, heartfelt and bittersweet, of our family's striving to make a better life in Canada. An uncle first found a job on a farm near Swift Current, and saved enough to bring over another uncle, then an aunt, and eventually my widowed grandma and the two smallest kids - one of whom was my mother.
Through hard work and reliance on the support of the Church community as well as each other, my reunited family contributed to the war effort and the building up of Canadian society.
Many Canadians can recount stories of migration and the construction of their families in this adopted country. Yet, without most of us realizing it, recent changes to immigration policies are changing this national narrative in fundamental - and negative - ways.
Whereas immigration was once considered a nation-building exercise, where active citizenship was offered and promoted with rights (as well as responsibilities), Ottawa is increasingly proposing policy goals better reserved for a temp agency primarily focused on the provision of just-in-time labour for Canadian employers.
To the surprise of most Canadians, there are now almost as many people being admitted to Canada as temporary foreign workers as those accepted as permanent residents.
In several provinces, the number of temporary foreign workers now outstrip immigrants. In 2006, for the first time in the history of Alberta, for example, more temporary foreign workers arrived than permanent immigrants.
By the end of 2007, Alberta had seen an increase of 3.6 times the number of temporary foreign workers as compared to 2003. And Calgary's Jason Kenney, the federal minister of citizenship and immigration, recently expressed surprise that, in spite of the current economic downturn, "demand for temporary foreign workers (was) steady in the first quarter of this year, and down only slightly in the second quarter."
It's hardly a surprise. Parliament's standing committee on citizenship and immigration has shown its concern with this situation. A May report on the topic recommended Canada's immigration system return permanent immigration to "its rightful place of priority," agreeing that "if a person is good enough to work here, he or she is good enough to stay here."
FOREIGN WORKER RULES
The Temporary Foreign Worker Program allows Canadian employers to hire eligible foreign workers for an authorized period of time. In 2008, 193,061 persons were admitted to Canada under this program, with various skill levels.
They labour in agriculture, construction and domestic work. Foreign workers need an approved job offer and a work permit before arrival in Canada. Employers must show that they have attempted to recruit Canadians or permanent residents, that wages offered are equal or better than those in the same occupation, and that labour standards meet provincial standards.
There are several reasons why the temporary foreign worker program has mushroomed in size.
Canada's temporary foreign worker program began with only three areas: one for seasonal agricultural workers, one for live-in caregivers, and another for people with highly specialized skills not available in Canada.
THE GATES WIDEN
However, employers in other businesses are flocking to the program. To meet the need of employers in certain regions of the country who cannot attract sufficient labour at the wage and benefit rates on offer, governments have moved to loosen requirements.
The current government slipped Immigration Act amendments into the 2008 federal budget bill, giving the minister unprecedented discretionary powers to identify 38 occupations to be given precedence in the temporary worker selection process.
The process to ensure no resident is available to work used to take five months - but now takes five days. And once employers have established their need for such workers, they need not reapply and show that resident workers are still unavailable.
And as the Parliamentary Committee reported, "The expansion of the temporary worker program represents a failure of the economic stream of immigration to bring in the type of workers needed and in a timely fashion."
In early 2008, Citizenship and Immigration Canada reported a backlog of 925,000 applications for permanent residency to Canada, with 585,000 of these persons in the skilled worker category. This backlog translates into huge waiting times for prospective immigrants: currently, 80 per cent of skilled worker applications are processed in 62 months.
By slowing and bureaucratizing the immigration process, and by refusing to name sufficient Refugee Board members to eliminate the backlog in claims there, and by streamlining the temporary worker program, the government is clearly showing its bias against improving the integration of immigrants.
As more temporary workers are invited to Canada but encumbered in their ability to remain here to contribute as permanent residents, the number of non-status (that is, "illegal") persons living and working in vulnerable situations is destined to rise.
The recent report of the parliamentary committee acknowledged that temporary foreign workers face "vulnerability to abuse" and "face barriers to attaining permanent residency." The committee stated that "permanent migration is in Canada's best interests." Thirty-six recommendations to improve the situation were offered, but the Conservative members of the committee opposed more than a quarter of the proposals.
Canada's Catholic bishops' 2006 pastoral letter on immigration and refugee matters stated, "The social and political attitudes of Christians ought to reflect a deep concern for the plight of immigrants and transients. . . . This openness should be shown to persons of all cultures and origins, no matter their immigration status. Christians are to be among those who refuse to let injustice towards immigrants continue, let alone increase."
Limitation of the temporary worker program would be an important step in this direction. As well, provincial labour standards need to be strengthened and enforcement greatly improved in order to defend these vulnerable workers. After all, newcomers today deserve the chance to become tomorrow's full citizens - the same chance offered to our parents.
(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice http://www.cpj.ca an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)
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