Near as I can tell, Minister Kenney’s line on temporary foreign workers goes something like this: There is no crisis — now give me credit for having solved it.
Thus, on Friday afternoon Canadians observed the incongruous spectacle of Kenney announcing sweeping reforms to the country’s embattled TWF program despite having just that morning published an editorial in the Globe and Mail defending the same program’s honor from the “myths” of ignorant critics.
It is a myth that Canada’s TFW program “is mainly about allowing employers to hire large numbers of people from abroad to fill low-skilled positions at below Canadian wage rates” wrote Kenney. Upwards of 75% of the 200,000 temporary foreign workers Canada admits annually are actually well-off interlopers from America, Australia, or Western Europe recruited to fill briefly-needed managerial or consulting jobs in the upper tiers of business, commerce, law, and science.
It’s also a myth that TFWs comprise some gigantic chunk of the Canadian labor market. In contrast to the fanciful imaginations of some, says the Minister, “the real number is 2 per cent.” Yes, “some businesses have abused the program” — cough cough McDonalds — by allowing “what is supposed to be a last resort to become a business model,” thereby depressing market wages in certain sectors. But even then, “only 0.21 per cent” of Canada’s low-wage drudge workers are TFWs, so let’s not be too quick to smash the panic button.
And yet, this harmless program is still being vastly retooled. There will be a moratorium on hiring TFWs in the retail, restaurant, hotel, and other stereotypically low-wage industries in regions of the country where unemployment is over six per cent, and even where it’s not, Ottawa will still do its best to make hiring them a hassle. The anachronism of lumping elite and prole temporary workers into a single migrant class will also end, thereby eliminating the need for future cabinet ministers to clarify definitions in newspaper editorials. Fines for rule-breakers will be raised. The government estimates the country’s total TFW intake will decline 50% as a result.
But again, why bother bringing such exhaustive reforms to a program impacting such a thin slice of the population — and a mostly privileged slice at that?
My own take is that this is but the latest chapter in Jason Kenney’s long, distinguished career of talking out of both sides of his mouth on the immigration issue in order to maintain the loyalty of an unlikely coalition of white immigration skeptics and ethnic “new Canadians” he considers so critical to his own political future. In this case, the strategy seems to be to ride public ignorance as far as it will take him.
The real problem with the temporary foreign workers program is that it’s been made to carry the cross for the totality of public displeasure with Canadian immigration in general. This is a predictable outcome in a nation that’s been consistently denied the chance to debate immigration in general, particularly the fundamental questions of how many immigrants we want, for what purpose they should be invited, and what costs the native born should bear in exchange. The TFW controversy marks the first time in decades the Canadian political class has even slightly broached some of these concerns, so it’s hardly shocking that a lot of pent-up opinion would be unloaded as a result.
Kenney is quick to dismiss Thomas Mulcair’s populist complaint about “having everybody in your McDonald’s or your Tim Horton’s coming from another country” as ignorant demagoguery, and as a critique of the TFW program Kenney’s right — as noted, only a very extreme minority of fast-food employees are temporary migrant workers. Yet Mulcair’s observation is nevertheless true in a larger sense — visit any McDonald’s or Tim Horton’s in suburban Canada these days and you will, in fact, be confronted with everyone behind the counter “coming from another country.” They just won’t necessarily have used the TFW program to get there.
It’s increasingly obvious that Canada is becoming a visibly stratified society in which a foreign-born underclass performs most of our dirtiest jobs, while a native-born overclass hogs all the good ones for itself — say judgeships. Studies show Canada’s immigrant population earns considerably less than its native-born — “by 2005, male immigrants were earning 63 cents and females 56 cents to every dollar earned by Canadian men and women,” according to a 2005 Statistics Canada survey — and the gap’s been widening for several decades.
Similarly, the notion that our bleeding hearts are supposed to be soothed upon learning that the majority of TFWs actually come from Europe and the States, the fact remains that the vast majority of Canadian immigrants in general do not.
In 2012, the last year for which we have data, over 80% of all Canadian immigrants hailed from the developing world, with China, India, and the Philippines providing the largest bulk. And since it’s these legal immigrants — not TFWs — who are doing much of the nation’s low-wage labor, Canada’s underpaid immigrant underclass does indeed possess some uncomfortable racial homogeneity.
Likewise, while 200,000 TFWs may only represent 2% of the Canadian workforce, Canada admits an additional 200,000-ish “plain” immigrants every year, a number which has climbed steadily since the 1970s. As result, Canada’s total foreign-born labor force has swelled to the point where they now comprise around 21% of all men and women working today. None of their employers were obligated to “find a Canadian first.”
A final red herring is that the TFW debate is primarily an economic one; a discussion of jobs taken, wages lowered, etc. This helps spread the misconception that Canadian immigration is primarily about the economy. Which it most certainly is not.
Most Canadians would probably be shocked to learn that as much as 75% of all new permanent residents admitted to Canada are imported with no economic rationale whatsoever, and are simply relatives of existing immigrants or refugees. Immigration Canada in fact does its best to ensure most Canadians don’t know this, by sneakily classifying the “spouses and dependants” of economic class immigrants in the same column as economic class immigrants themselves, a trick which makes the economic class seem twice as big as it really is. A 2013 Fraser Institute report found immigration to actually be a net drain on the Canadian economy, considering the welfare state costs associated with absorbing a bunch of new residents who frequently have a very hard time finding work in an economy that doesn’t need them, and boast above-average rates of unemployment and reliance on social assistance as a result.
When Canadians complain about immigration, as they do whenever they repeatedly tell pollsters they want immigration rates frozen or lowered, they’re complaining about all of this stuff — as well as the cultural transformation of their communities by an influx of outsiders, the breakdown of a common Canadian identity in favor of increased ethnic ghettoization, the lack of efficiency crippling many sectors of the economy through the crutch of cheap foreign labor, the rise of race as a signifier of wealth and social standing, and so on.
Tinkering around with the TFW program won’t address any of this, which Minister Kenney knows. Yet it’s in his interests to pretend otherwise.
Though the press makes much of his famed outreach to “ethnic voters,” a less-discussed side of the man is his simultaneous effort to convince traditional Tory voters (ie; white immigration critics) that his management of the immigration file is restrained, pragmatic, and economy-focused, in contrast to the flailing arm “massive increases in immigration” he accuses the opposition of plotting.
Canada’s temporary foreign worker program has become an unfair receptacle for repressed anti-immigration sentiment, and Kenney’s perfectly willing to stalk that horse if it improves his tough guy bona fides.
Taking credit for taming the gigantic, mythical problems of what is actually a small, misunderstood program is obviously a great deal easier than substantially addressing the larger flaws of a deeply unpopular immigration regime he’s invested so much personal capital in building.
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