Until the last few years Canadians have rarely heard about a “need” to bring temporary foreign workers into the country, except for the harvesting of agricultural crops.
Now, it seems hardly a day passes without a related story. A Chinese-owned mine operation “needs” to bring in Chinese miners who have experience in a specific type of mining (turns out they didn’t have that experience). The Royal Bank of Canada, struggling after posting a mere $7.5-billion profit last year, contracts with an Indian company, then instructs Canadian workers help train the temporary workers, who can then carry on the work overseas next year. The list goes on.
A red flag seemed to wave in front of my eyes last month when an analyst, speaking on CBC Radio, said that the federal government’s own statistics on labour and employment failed to indicate any real labour shortage in any part of the country. That, it occurred to me, just might be an explanation for the Harper government’s disdain for research and data collection, at least as it pertains to the stuff that is actually intended to be available to the interested public.
The analyst implied that the likelihood is that “labour shortages” are in fact a euphemism for expensive (a.k.a. Canadian) labour, and that there is increasing business pressure on the federal government to approve applications for temporary foreign workers, who tend to be paid less, who can’t organize themselves into unions, who are more easily intimidated and controlled and who can simply be shipped back home when they are no longer needed, wanted or welcomed.
More information blurred the simple supply-demand argument on Monday during a call-in show, this time on Mark Forsythe’s fine Almanac program. One woman, whose family has a tomato operation, said she simply can’t get Canadian workers to stay on the job. Forget my impression that, from her attitude and the tone in her voice, she came across as not the sort of person anyone would want to work for. She pays, she said, minimum wage (“or a little bit more”), but also provides housing for the workers, which she argues is a valuable perk.
Not that I have direct experience (I did live in a work camp once, but the commute home from north of the Arctic Circle to Calgary would have been impractical) but I doubt that there is a very large percentage of Canadian workers who think that living on the farm where they work for minimum wage is a big lure. It would be, though, for someone coming from Central or South America or the Far East. In her own eyes, the tomato lady sees the value of the housing she provides as being part of the salary, but I suspect from the prospective Canadian workers’ point of view, they want no part of it. They want to go to work and earn enough to pay for their accommodation, to which they can go back to and enjoy the other parts of their lives.
Now, I am entirely sympathetic to the plight of the agricultural employer. After a couple of generations of Canadians have fled from rural to city life, it is hard to lure employees back to the farm. And these businesses compete in an unfair world, where they have to sell their products in competition with other companies, where land and labour are cheaper and fewer environmental standards have to be met. If governments were truly interested in food security issues, they would work to level the playing field by restricting imports that harm our own industry, or provide subsidies to allow Canadian producers to compete. The status quo is not working, at least to the benefit of our own citizenry.
Instead, though, governments take the same cheap, easy ways out as they have for the last couple of decades, paving the way for jobs to be exported out of the country to anywhere that labour is cheaper. Or, when the jobs cannot be exported, they responded to this perceived labour shortage by encouraging the import of temporary foreign workers who don’t even have the luxury of voting.
I’m guessing it was nearly 20 years ago that I wrote in this space that any political party that promised to put up more barriers to the easy movement of goods and services across our border would have my support. I don’t feel any differently today.
Cheap goods for a poor populace is a lousy trade.
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.