One of the hymns sung most enthusiastically from the business choir is praise for the free market.
But reports from across the country about temporary foreign workers displacing Canadians — the less-than -radical C.D. Howe institute reports Ottawa’s program boosted unemployment in B.C. by more than three percentage points — suggest that this is not about the free market at all; it’s about distorting the free market to serve special economic interests.
Turns out I’m not the only one to notice this particular elephant at the salad bar.
Kevin McQuillan, a professor with the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy published a paper worrying that “temporary foreign workers could be distorting the labour market forces that would bring together more Canadian workers and jobs.”
“The country is not likely to benefit from a growing class of low-paid, temporary residents,” McQuillan warned in 2013. “Canada needs to make more effective use of its homegrown resources.”
Then there’s Christopher Worswick, an economist at Carleton University. He suspects labour market distortion caused by hiring cheap, temporary foreign workers will only lead to problems down the road by denying young Canadians access to traditional entry level jobs from which they gain valuable experience before transitioning into career employment.
And, finally, there’s Employment Minister Jason Kenney, who Thursday hastily suspended the scandalous program for the fast-food sector amid a deepening roar of public displeasure in the Tory heartland over accusations of abuse that ranged from forced kickbacks of overtime pay to usurious recruitment fees.
In a free market, scarcity drives price. If you can’t get something you want, you pay what the market dictates in order to get it. Hence the big bump in gasoline prices at the pumps this week.
Refineries are switching over to summer production so for now there’s less gasoline available for retail. And people are driving more as the weather improves, so there’s greater demand. Demand goes up, supply goes down, and the prices we pay at the pump rise until we stop buying, then they go down again.
This principle should apply to domestic labour markets as much as it does to supply and demand for gasoline.
If the fast-food business is accurate in its claim there’s a scarcity of labour to fill their unskilled minimum wage jobs, wages should rise until those jobs become attractive enough to bring in Canadian workers who can fill them.
Instead, these employers import minimum-wage employees from foreign labour pools where even the worst wage and working conditions in Canada look attractive. This enables business to artificially depress wages here.
To get these jobs, foreign workers must sign employment contracts. If they leave their jobs, they must to jump through all the hoops all over again. Government waxes enthusiastic about human rights and Canada’s record as a defender of such, but the plethora of stories we’re now hearing suggest Ottawa’s been asleep or complicit.
“Because of their lack of permanent status and their isolation, temporary migrant workers are especially vulnerable to exploitation and abuse,” warns the Canadian Council for Refugees. It gives B.C. a failing grade for its legislative protection of such workers.
So, let’s see, you’re in a minimum-wage, unskilled job on an employment contract with Colossus Corp. Family depends on what you can send home from your already meagre earnings.
Would you be likely to shop around for better work knowing some bureaucrat might deport you for a procedural work permit error? Are you likely or challenge a supervisor about overtime? No. You are going to keep your head down and shut up, work like a demon and probably not ask compensation for extra time.
Brazilian writer Paolo Freire eloquently and exhaustively explained the dynamic that renders the powerless most fearful of freedom — including the pursuit their rights — in his much-studied book Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
This is the backdrop against which apologists stick their thumbs in their suspenders and talk sanctimoniously about how employers love temporary foreign workers because there’s less turnover, they are loyal and work harder than lazy, entitled Canadians.
Translation: they are compliant, have few options and cost less.
Most of the arguments about needing temporary foreign workers to fill unfillable positions because no Canadians are available are self-serving rationalizations.
Employers hire foreign workers for unskilled jobs because, despite the words in the hymn book, they don’t really like the free market. They prefer to manipulate the market. And we’ve been enabling that manipulation.
This doesn’t grant xenophobes permission for hostility toward foreign workers who have done nothing wrong.
If Canada truly needs these workers, grant them landed immigrant status with the same rights, benefits and freedoms to sell their labour to the highest bidder that the rest of us supposedly enjoy in our supposedly free marketplace. Stephen Hume: Foreign workers skew the market