Almost timed to coordinate with Michigan’s new ‘Right to Work” legislation that essentially drains the vigor out of labour unions there, Canada’s immigration minister Jason Kenney has announced yet another updated policy affecting migrant skilled trades workers, sure to have a weakening effect on unions here as a well as on low-skill Canadians seeking work.
In the U.S., the anti-union push has been gaining traction with more than 20 states having legislation similar to the one just passed in Michigan allowing workers to opt out of paying union dues in a unionized work environment while still benefiting from union agreements.
Kenney’s latest policy adjustment allows more skilled trades into Canada – 3000 next year – but also allows employers to hire migrant temporary workers at a rate of pay that is up to 15 per cent lower than Canadian workers in the same trade. This is a happy turn of events for interested employers, which also fits with the many-pronged approach among hard-right conservatives to wrest power away from unions and, subsequently, masses of workers.
Yet, when it comes to the kind of environment that has to be fostered for the Canadian labour force and economy to thrive, the heads of the respective ministries of immigration, labour and human resources must maintain a real balance between fair employment opportunities for Canadian workers and Canada’s need for population and economic viability through realistic immigration criteria.
The fear Canadian workers face is being placed at a disadvantage because of the hiring of immigrant workers. In fact both could be disadvantaged. One, because immigrant workers coming in now do so at great personal cost including, in some cases, paying thousands of dollars to agents who purportedly act as the middlemen in these transactions. Two, because resident workers with similar trades skills will have to compete with lower-wage workers.
The argument is that migrants are coming here to do jobs that Canadians don’t want, and that may be true in part, but there are people here desperate for work who are not being given a chance to get into certain jobs because employers’ criteria will sometimes exclude them, for example, requiring workers to speak languages other than French or English.
What can be understood is that Kenney has been hard at work on the immigration and refugee portfolio reshaping immigration policy to fit the Conservative agenda, which means that it is business-friendly, to a fault.
It has been generally agreed that the immigration system needs fixing. The backlog that has people waiting in excess of seven years to get a response to their applications is untenable. But the recent cancellation of thousands of applications seems like a desperate solution and might be interpreted as the current government’s way of wiping the slate of applicants that no longer fit the hiring criteria of business.
Skilled trades’ temporary workers are the new desirable immigrants. But keeping them on an unsure footing serves employers by limiting the labour rights of these temporary workers, while also keeping wages low. Good for business of course, but not good for local workers. And while foreign workers will be happy for a chance to work at wages that are relatively higher than in their countries of origin, it still smacks of unfairness to workers over all. But the nature of the relationship between business and workers is that one of these entities is going to have to lose in order for the other to win. With the demise of unions, it is the workers who will be negatively impacted.
And never mind the explanations about how there are specific criteria that will give preference to Canadian workers. Lower wages will be an incentive for employers to choose temporary migrant workers over local workers. Motivated by their bottom line, savvy employers will find their way around requirements to fill vacancies with Canadian residents first.
The need to expedite applications by people with much needed skills who want to come here means Kenney is trying to do some good. So yes, open the gate to workers our economy needs, but find the balance so that the wage range is fair to both temporary and local workers.
This government must also see it as their responsibility to protect migrant workers and stop pretending that agents taking advantage of these temporary workers by requiring high application fees from them don’t exist.