By Thomas Walkom
There is an implicit bargain in Canada regarding immigration. Canadians agree to welcome newcomers. In return, the government agrees not to use immigrants to drive down the wages of those already living here.
While never formally acknowledged, it’s a bargain that’s been in place since at least World War II, one that has prevented the kind of anti-immigrant agitation now roiling Europe.
And it is a bargain that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are deliberately setting out to break.
Human Resources Minister Diane Finley made the break specific this week when she announced that Ottawa will now let employers pay temporary foreign workers less than Canadians.
The Conservatives talk a good game on immigration. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney speaks of rationalizing the complex system used to decide who comes to Canada and of bringing it in line with what he calls the needs of the economy.
In last month’s federal budget, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said employers would have to make every effort to hire unemployed Canadians before they’d be allowed to bring in temporary foreign workers.
But in reality, the federal Conservative government’s entire immigration policy is geared to just one goal: lowering wages.
On Wednesday, Finley journeyed to Alberta to announce that Ottawa will make it easier — not harder — for employers to hire temporary foreign skilled workers.
More importantly, she said Ottawa will allow employers to pay such foreign workers 15 per cent less than the prevailing wage.
Up to now, employers had to pay temporary foreign skilled workers the going rate. If comparable Canadian workers in an area received on average, say, $20 an hour, foreign workers would have to be paid the same.
The temporary foreign workers program began as a stop-gap measure in 2000, specifically to deal with a shortage of software specialists. But under pressure from employers — particularly in the Alberta oil patch — it has vastly expanded.
By 2011, there were some 300,111 temporary foreign workers of all kinds in Canada — 106,849 of them in Ontario. Unlike standard immigrants, temporary foreign workers have no guarantee of staying in Canada and are expected to leave when their papers expire.
While the program technically is supposed to address labour shortages in skilled trades, temporary foreign workers now do an assortment of jobs.
Some serve coffee in Alberta doughnut shops; others work on the assembly line in Maritime fish processing plants.
Employers could solve their labour shortages by offering higher wages or — in the case of skilled trades — by training Canadians to do the job.
But, if government is willing, it’s easier and more profitable to import cheaper, trained labour from abroad.
And this government has shown that it’s willing. It says that if Canadians don’t want to see jobs going to foreigners, they should quit whining and accept lower wages.
Which is why Ottawa’s answer to complaints made about temporary foreign workers is to toughen Employment Insurance rules.
Kenney has warned that unemployed workers who refuse to take low-wage jobs will have their EI benefits cut off. If Canadians agree to work for less, he explains, Ottawa won’t have to bring in as many low-wage outsiders.
All of this is a solution of sorts, I suppose, albeit a 19th century one. But it is a solution that threatens to bring with it the kind of agitation now seen in countries like France, Holland and Greece — where the racist right is on the rise and where far too many workers view immigrants as mortal enemies out to steal their jobs.