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'I know I can't bring my family here'
July 7, 2010 12:26 PM   Subscribe

The Toronto Star looks into the shambles that Canada's guest worker program finds itself in.

Employers are taking advantage of workers, who are tied to the employers. Switching to another employer involves going through layers of bureaucracy, so many workers end up in serfdom or escape and work illegally.

There are isolated feel good stories, but it may be too little too late.
posted by reenum (36 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Use all those unemployed Americans...that gets them off welfare and/or uneployment compensation...many have already lost their homes so they can readily pack a bag and ship out. After all, Canada is the U.S. without guns.
posted by Postroad at 12:45 PM on July 7, 2010


Yeah, as an American on a guest worker permit locked into a job that is soul destroying way too often, I find it hard to be glib about this.
posted by the dief at 12:56 PM on July 7, 2010


Canada is the U.S. without guns

We also have Health Care and aren't deathly afraid of Mexicans.
posted by chunking express at 12:57 PM on July 7, 2010 [4 favorites]


Canada is the U.S. without guns.

No, Canada is the U.S. without gun crime. There's still plenty of guns.
posted by Etrigan at 1:01 PM on July 7, 2010 [4 favorites]


But Milk in a Bag people, Milk in a Bag.
posted by boubelium at 1:03 PM on July 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


and aren't deathly afraid of Mexicans

So long as you can exploit them apparently.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 1:05 PM on July 7, 2010 [4 favorites]


No, Canada is America's hat.

I'm probably doing this wrong.
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:14 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


So, for all its abuses and misuses the guest worker program at least attempts to fill a need for low-wage workers in Canada. Doing nothing and encouraging an underground economy of illegal workers (like in the US) would be worse IMO.
posted by GuyZero at 1:32 PM on July 7, 2010


Lack of oversight by the federal government has allowed foreign workers to be abused by their employers, Auditor General Sheila Fraser says in a scathing report on Canada's immigration program.

Sheila Fraser deserves her own FPP. She basically brought down the Paul Martin government, and, in an era when any and all independent officers of the Commons have been targeted by the PMO, she has survived and has thrived.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:39 PM on July 7, 2010 [6 favorites]


No, Canada is America's hat.

That makes Mexico the beard!
posted by mannequito at 2:02 PM on July 7, 2010


Canada = USA + France

Also, all of the guest workers that I've met are filipino.
posted by blue_beetle at 2:12 PM on July 7, 2010


Canada's "nanny visa" is considerably more questionable and abuse-prone than the migrant worker visa. Or, at any rate, it's equally bad.
posted by GuyZero at 2:34 PM on July 7, 2010


Canada used to have an Exotic Dancer Visa Program. I know that strippers are a pillar of the Canadian economy like donuts and pulp wood, and the oil boom has tightened the flow of desperate girls from the prarie. But jeez, how did anyone think that bringing desperate Eastern European women in to strip would not create a human trafficking situation?

I once saw a dancer in Missasauga or something do her routine to Stompin' Tom Connor's The Hockey Song. No shit.
posted by Mayor Curley at 3:03 PM on July 7, 2010


do her routine to Stompin' Tom Connor's The Hockey Song

Never say immigrants aren't innovative.
posted by GuyZero at 3:23 PM on July 7, 2010


So, for all its abuses and misuses the guest worker program at least attempts to fill a need for low-wage workers in Canada.

As I understand it, that "need" only exists because the employers in question are unwilling to pay enough (and improve working conditions enough) for Canadian citizens to take those jobs. It's not like there's a shortage of unemployed workers in Canada.
posted by twirlip at 3:26 PM on July 7, 2010


I think the one man profiled in the Star articles was being paid minimum wage - $8 an hour. Now, it's a bit of a scam that he has a number of mandatory deductions for lodging, etc but a native Canadian would have to pay something for those costs too. Holding the guys's passport is of questionable legality.

At any rate I don't think raising the wages for vegetable pickers will be a panacea - the competition from US producers is pretty intense and for better or worse consumers won't pay more for food just because someone tells them they should.
posted by GuyZero at 3:33 PM on July 7, 2010


Also, Alberta's unemployment rate as of May was 6.6% which is pretty close to what economists consider "full employment". In Alberta there are quite literally not enough unemployed workers to take hard low-paying jobs like vegetable picking. During the headier days of the oil boom they were bringing in migrant workers to staff fast-food restaurants in Calgary because they could (again) not hire any locals.
posted by GuyZero at 3:36 PM on July 7, 2010


Also, Alberta's unemployment rate as of May was 6.6% which is pretty close to what economists consider "full employment".

Newfoundland's unemployment rate as of May was 13.8%. Ontario's was 8.9%. And standard measures of employment only count those who are actively looking for work; people who have given up looking, as well as those who are working part-time because they can't find full-time work are not counted. "Real" unemployment, which includes those people, was 12.4% nationwide in April.

At any rate I don't think raising the wages for vegetable pickers will be a panacea - the competition from US producers is pretty intense

Oh, I agree. That's one reason people object to globalization in its current form: it's a race to the bottom.
posted by twirlip at 5:10 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


As I understand it, that "need" only exists because the employers in question are unwilling to pay enough (and improve working conditions enough) for Canadian citizens to take those jobs. It's not like there's a shortage of unemployed workers in Canada.

Another way to put it would be that guest workers mitigate inflation, which protects the value of the Canadian dollar: Excellent for people with savings who are not competing with the guest workers for jobs. Guest workers also stabilize the cost of labour, which encourages investment in new businesses by removing one cause of uncertainty.

Without guest workers, it's not as if rising labour costs would necessarily be paid by employers. Some jobs would move to other countries, others would disappear entirely.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 5:13 PM on July 7, 2010


Whoops, that "12.4% in April" link is actually quoting real unemployment numbers for 2009. However, this Globe and Mail article says real unemployment was unchanged a year later -- 12.4% in March 2010.
posted by twirlip at 5:18 PM on July 7, 2010


Another way to put it would be that guest workers mitigate inflation, which protects the value of the Canadian dollar

And yet another way to put it is that Canada's economic situation is founded in part on the exploitation of guest workers.

Guest workers also stabilize the cost of labour

Could you elaborate on this? I'm not quite sure what it means, unless it's another way of saying "Using guest workers keeps the cost of labour from increasing to match inflation and cost-of-living increases."
posted by twirlip at 5:28 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


The alternatives to a formal guest worker program are, empirically, illegal workers and not highly paid local labourers based on experiences in similar countries. The argument about guest labourers is similar to the discussion of minimum wage - while those who earn minimum wage would like to see it raised it's not clear that raising the minimum wage drastically would result in a net improvement overall. Alberta is simply short of low-skill, low-wage workers. It's too bad that the government can't manage the program better to prevent abuses by employers.
posted by GuyZero at 5:33 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


The alternatives to a formal guest worker program are, empirically, illegal workers

And refugee claimants. Lots of refugee claimants, for the work permit that comes with. We can continue to treat the symptoms, like our visa imposition on Mexico, or we can deal realistically with the problem.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 5:38 PM on July 7, 2010


The alternatives to a formal guest worker program are, empirically, illegal workers and not highly paid local labourers based on experiences in similar countries.

In other words, if employers can't hire these workers and treat them like shit legally, they'll do it illegally?
posted by twirlip at 5:43 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Find me a country where it's otherwise. The US agriculture industry, specifically vegetable picking, is basically illegal immigrants or, at best, undocumented workers. And it's not like people are making $15/h picking cucumbers in Israel or any other place where they grow a lot of vegetables.

The guest worker program isn't great but this is low-skill, low-wage labour. It is hard to find people like that in Canada.
posted by GuyZero at 5:50 PM on July 7, 2010


In other words, if employers can't hire these workers and treat them like shit legally, they'll do it illegally?

And, just to be clear - yes. Absolutely yes.
posted by GuyZero at 5:51 PM on July 7, 2010


Could you elaborate on this? I'm not quite sure what it means, unless it's another way of saying "Using guest workers keeps the cost of labour from increasing to match inflation and cost-of-living increases."

If you want to start a business (say, a winery), you want to be sure that the cost of labour is going to be stable (within a few percent every year) over, say, the ten years it will take to recuperate your investment. If there's uncertainty about the cost of labour, then you might not embark on the enterprise.

I think there's some ideal level of guest workers -- too few would be inflationary, whereas too many harms competing Canadian labourers too much. The goal of economic policy is balancing this.

And yet another way to put it is that Canada's economic situation is founded in part on the exploitation of guest workers.

I guess so, but the option of not having guest workers just leaves them more exploited in their own countries while the Canadian economy flounders. A better solution is to push for worldwide labour reform. There have already been some environmental ones, so maybe some labour reform is possible.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 6:38 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


And yet another way to put it is that Canada's economic situation is founded in part on the exploitation of guest workers.

If you're going to get all Marxist here, Canada's whole economy is built on exploitation so that's not really a factor in evaluating the merits of and problems with the guest worker program.
posted by GuyZero at 7:00 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm uncomfortable with the "They'll do it anyway" line of reasoning, because it amounts to an excuse to shrug our shoulders and move on. It's not like the migrant labour situation is natural and inevitable; it's a product of a deliberately created system -- a system of labor laws, international trade agreements, and border protection bureaucracies, held together by the deeply ideological language of mainstream economics. I don't think it takes a Marxist analysis to conclude that guest worker programs are a legal cover for exploitation. And expecting the governments that created this situation to rigorously enforce standards is asking the fox to guard the henhouse. We should set our expectations and demands higher than that. That could mean hiring "local" (i.e., Canadian) workers by offering wages and working conditions they're willing to accept; better yet, it could mean organizing the people who take these jobs, local or foreign, to force concessions out of both the employers and the government.

If you want to start a business (say, a winery), you want to be sure that the cost of labour is going to be stable (within a few percent every year) over, say, the ten years it will take to recuperate your investment. If there's uncertainty about the cost of labour, then you might not embark on the enterprise.

Doesn't this reasoning lead to the conclusion that severely underpaid workers should remain severely underpaid, otherwise new players will never enter the market?
posted by twirlip at 7:17 PM on July 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


Except that it's not just low paid labour - it's a fairly fluid supply of labour the cost of which doesn't change rapidly. There's always more where they came from.

Growing up in Alberta it was interesting to see how many of my friends looked at post secondary education opportunities (be it university or trade school) and decided that driving a truck for $25/hr was the smarter investment. Who's to say they were wrong? Meanwhile the dirty bits or oil work were being done by the largest population of newfies outside of Newfoundland, that sidewalk was finished by a father from thailand living in an apartment building owned by the company (in my employers case it was the only to provide reasonably cheap accommodation) and your sandwich was made by a mother from the philipines.

In all three cases it was hit or miss if they had family within 5000km.

On a side note - someone working here to support a family on, perhaps, a different continent probably isn't going to take a lot of days off. They work a lot and are more than happy to soak up another 4 hours here and there. More power to them. A weird side effect though was that (at least when I was coming out of high school) it really wasn't all that easy to find a part time job despite employers constantly decryingnthe shortage of available labour. Apparently 10hours during the week around school isn't really valuable at any cost let alone the oil inflated cost the market demanded.

Not really a bad thing I guess, there really ought to be more volunteer time in high school anyway, but the combination of many factors leads to a growing population with little or no education past high school use to making oil field wages in boom and bust cycles significant difficulty making any sort of lateral shift into a different trade. Oh and we are still telling people across the world that their local cost of living makes them attractive to higher, just so long as they don't live here thereby acquiring our cost of living.
posted by mce at 7:57 PM on July 7, 2010


The US agriculture industry, specifically vegetable picking, is basically illegal immigrants or, at best, undocumented workers.

A lot of people down here would like to change that, but we have this teensy-weensy little issue with corporate money in government making it hard to change the status quo.

The guest worker program isn't great but this is low-skill, low-wage labour

Why? If nobody without a proverbial gun to their head will do it for less than $15/hr, then it's pretty clearly not a low-wage job. Sounds like unpleasant labor to me, but there are lots of jobs like that in the economy. People who can tolerate doing them make bank.

It makes perfect sense to me that someone willing to stand out in the blazing sun and pick vegetables all day is going to make a premium over someone who spends all day working indoors. The idea that these jobs ought to be low-wage (and consequently low-prestige) is toxic. They ought to be whatever people in the legitimate labor pool demand in order to fill them, and if nobody in that labor pool is willing to do the job at the wage the employer is offering, the correct solution is not to import a lot of more-desperate laborers.

Agricultural products have traditionally been expensive because of the labor involved. Mechanization of some crops have made them staggeringly cheap, but others are cheap only because of exploitative labor practices. These practices need to stop, even if the result is higher prices -- because those prices would be honest, and reflect the true cost of the labor the products require.

If we in developed countries really want cheap produce that badly, then we ought to subsidize it at the supermarket end of the chain, not artificially depress the price by undercutting the labor market.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:10 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


But Milk in a Bag people, Milk in a Bag.

That's Ontario, not "Canada." No milk in a bag here in Alberta. No Pizza Pizza either. Tonnes and tonnes and tonnes and tonnes of temporary foreign workers.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 11:08 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Milk in a bag roxors. (And it's just been introduced into the UK, albeit with unnecessarily complicated jugs).

But restrictive visas do not roxor. All "guest" worker visas should allow the person to leave their employer and work in any place.
posted by jb at 7:08 AM on July 8, 2010


I took a course on immigration policy in grad school and we spent a lot of time reading and talking about guestworker programs, especially those for "non-skilled" workers. One theme that came across again and again is how a significant portion of temporary workers inevitably turn into permanent residents, legally or illegally. Workers aren't just goods that can be transported across borders and then returned when the economy doesn't need them anymore - they form relationships, get involved in the community, get different jobs than the ones they originally came for.

This is especially so, given that most guestworkers are in their prime child-bearing, marrying and "settling down" years. They have kids who go to local schools, they marry each other or citizens. Say a guestworker from El Salvador and one from Mexico get together, have kids and then their guestworker visa runs out, or the program ends. What are they supposed to do? They can't really just go home, since each member of the family has a different home country, so they will probably stay in their host country. Without a really well-established path to citizenship, a guestworker program really just acts as a way to create a permanent, non-citizen underclass.
posted by lunasol at 1:37 PM on July 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Holding the guys's passport is of questionable legality.

Uh, not an expert on Canadian law here, but I really cannot see how this could be seen as legal, or ethically ok.
posted by lunasol at 1:39 PM on July 8, 2010


No Pizza Pizza either.

Thankfully.
posted by Kurichina at 11:17 AM on July 12, 2010


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