A sea change in immigration, met by silence on the hustings
TheStar.com - Federal Election -
September 20, 2008
Lesley Ciarula Taylor
When politicians talk about temporary foreign workers, which isn't often, the Conservatives see them as the SWAT team of the global economy, the Liberals as not conducive to nation-building, and the New Democrats as migrants whose wages are exploitative and families fractured.
But no less than the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has decided temporary labour migration is the global issue of 2008. More than 2.5 million temporary foreign workers arrived in wealthy countries in 2006, three times the number of immigrants invited to stay.
It "does not appear to be a foundation on which one can construct a solid migration policy," says John Martin, OECD director for employment, labour and social affairs, in the lead editorial of the 30-country policy group's 2008 report on international migration.
Temporary foreign workers have a role to play, he says, but relying on them while letting an immigration system slog through backlogs and poor integration of immigrants just doesn't work in the long run.
When their visas expire and they stay, temporary workers find themselves in jobs with half the pay of a legal worker. The OECD says the vast majority of illegal immigrants in wealthy countries are working.
And the demand is there: small and medium-sized businesses in Canada say almost a fifth of current job demand is for people with basic skills and labourers. Who are they? Hotel, hospital and nursing-home workers, food-service counter staff, construction workers, truck drivers, cleaners, fish-plant workers and taxi drivers.
These people are filling a long-term need, says the OECD, and few wealthy countries have created solid programs to recruit and protect them. Canada, in fact, gives work permits to the spouses of high-skilled temporary workers but not the low-skilled ones.
The number of temporary foreign workers – brought in on one-year visas to do specific jobs – has jumped 58 per cent in the past five years. Last year, Canada imported 115,470 temporary migrants for a total of 201,057, just 25,000 fewer than the number of skilled workers brought in as permanent residents and a 58-per-cent increase in five years.
And as the short-term numbers have been rising dramatically, the number of immigrants who get to come and stay drops. Combined with changes this summer that let Ottawa hand-pick newcomers for specific job skills, Canada is closing its borders in a way not seen since the middle of the 20th century.
"There is something cynical about this new model," says Myer Siemiatycki, a professor in immigration settlement studies at Ryerson University. "On one hand, it rules out most workers from becoming eligible for permanent residency. On the other hand, we induce them to come with the Canada Experience Class as bait. But while they are here, they better be compliant, docile and non-complaining employees."
One of the main reasons Canada has been able to avoid the headache of a huge illegal migrant population has been its focus on bringing in skilled workers as permanent residents, says Jeffrey Reitz, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto and expert on immigrant employment and settlement issues.
"Once you have a substantial underground economy, it is difficult to deal with," Reitz notes. "You see the backlash against immigrants in the U.S. If the public turns against immigrants as a result of misperception that people are bending the rules and are not authorized to be here, Canada's (immigrant) development program will be in jeopardy."
He wants the parties to explain:
What they would do to ensure temporary foreign workers leave Canada (we don't currently keep track).
How they would repair the lax system that allows employers to collaborate with recruiters and immigration consultants to exploit the temporary foreign worker program as a "back door to immigration."
How they would protect these workers who are being abused and exploited because their status is tied to specific employers.
"We bring in people for our permanent needs on a permanent basis and for our temporary labour market needs on a temporary basis," says Karen Shadd, spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
"Hogwash," responds Olivia Chow, NDP immigration critic and candidate in Trinity-Spadina. "This looks at immigrants as economic units. The expansion of the program was a band-aid for decades of neglect and a point system that is so perverse skilled trades can't get in."
Compared with other wealthy countries, Canada has carved out a policy that the numbers of who gets to come here should balance: skilled workers, refugees, families of workers, family reunification, temporary foreign workers. (The United States and France, by contrast, make family migrants 44 per cent of their total.) It means only about 25 per cent of Canada's immigrants are actually hand-picked skilled workers.
Another 21st-century phenomenon has skewed efforts to find the right workers: up to 50 per cent of long-term immigrants, the ones brought in to nation build, leave within five years for home or another country, says the OECD – even in countries like Canada, which give them permanent residence immediately and citizenship quickly.
There is much value to Canada's old open-door immigration policy, says Siemiatycki, the one in whichimmigrants were chosen based on professional skills and education, with the assumption they'd be more adaptable in an economic downturn.
"Tying permanent residency to employment is very short-sighted because the jobs that are available to you today might not be there tomorrow."
Citizenship and Immigration Canada praises its temporary foreign worker program as a quick response to rapid changes in the global market, as does Sergio Karas, chair of the Ontario Bar Association's citizenship and immigration section.
"This is the future of international migration, where we reward the highly mobile individuals who have the right skills to integrate quickly into the labour force and discourage those who will not be able to get a job and contribute to the society."
In an interview on Sept. 13, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said; "Our biggest challenge will be labour shortages, not unemployment."
Immigration has been shunted to the back shelf for years, deputy Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff told The Star last week. Immigration critic Maurizio Bevilacqua points out that as Tory spending increased 14 per cent, spending on immigration increased 1 per cent.
The ministry has been "a place where you blow your legs off," Ignatieff says of the five ministers in the past six years.
"This is about the Canadian dream and whether Canada keeps faith with that dream."
He evoked the memory of immigration minister Jack Pickersgill paying to fly hundreds of Hungarians caught in the revolution to this country 51 years ago. That, says Ignatieff, is what immigration needs to be again.