Friday, November 06, 2009

A brief note on the problems facing the Canadian guest worker program

Canada's Low Skill Pilot Project, instituted earlier this decade to allow for the temporary migration of low-skilled foreign migrants to fill gaps in the Canadian market, has received quite a lot of negative attention recently. Earlier, the program was criticized un detail by Toronto Star columnist Carol Goar.

In 2008, close to 200,000 temporary foreign workers arrived in Canada to drive trucks, serve fast food, clean buildings, even do government jobs. Today, more than half of those entering the country take this backdoor route.

Employers use the program as a source of cheap labour. The government promotes it as an efficient way to fill job vacancies. Immigration consultants capitalize on it, charging applicants hefty fees and promising them high wages, good working conditions, decent housing and employer-paid trips back to their home country.

How did a small detour around Canada's normal immigrant intake system expand into a high-speed thoroughfare for people who wouldn't otherwise qualify for admission?

And how will young Canadians, laid-off older workers and job seekers without post-secondary education get an economic foothold with so many entry-level positions filled?

[. . .]

Since the Tories took power, the number of temporary foreign workers accepted into the country has risen from 122,723 a year to 192,519 a year - a 67 per cent increase.

There is strong, albeit anecdotal, evidence that employers are replacing Canadian workers with lower-coast temporary foreign workers or recruiting abroad in the first place.

At the same time, there are persistent reports that recruits from poor countries are being exploited. Their tenure in Canada is dependent on their employer. They are not fully protected by the Charter of Rights. And many are willing to put up with substandard working conditions to support their families back home.

What human rights activists fear is that Canada is heading down the same path as many European countries whose "guest worker" programs have resulted in a large pool of illegal immigrants, foreign workers incapable of becoming permanent residents or citizens who go underground and live on the margins of society.

A situation akin to that facing Germany's Gastarbeitar and that community's descendants, often deprived of the ability to assimilate legally into their host country and socially deprived, would be a serious change for a Canada that pride itself on a relatively permeable immigration regime, taxi-driving doctors aside. Just the other day, the program has been criticized by Auditor General Sheila Fraser as badly run (one of many federal programs, actually, but leave that aside).

Fraser said federal authorities do not follow up on job offers for foreign workers to see if the jobs offered are real, if the employer can afford promised wages and if there is a real need for the worker.

Fraser's report follows a year-long series of Star articles that chronicled the exploitation of temporary workers, often referred to as "guest" workers, and live-in caregivers, some of whom were charged as much as $10,000 by recruiters and ended up with bogus jobs with phantom employers.

In some cases, the Star found nannies were housed in high numbers in basement apartments and flophouses around the GTA, then forced to work illegally to start paying recruiters their placement fees.

Many were also forced to surrender their passports and social insurance cards to these agencies to obtain work with other employers.

"The problems we noted could leave temporary workers in a vulnerable position and pose significant risks to the integrity of the immigration program as a whole," Fraser said in a statement accompanying her report to Parliament.

The guest worker solution doesn't particularly appeal to me, inasmuch as it's an inadequate substitute for a permeable migration regime and is often counterproductive--from the perspective of host countries--by promoting permanent settlement as migrants caught in a restrictive framework try to bring their families with them. The situation of Turks in Germany comes most readily to mind. Can any of our readers cite an example of a well-functioning guest worker program?


Anonymous said...

Singapore's guest worker programme works fine. Its aims, conditions and enforcement mechanisms do not appear to be compatible with your moraility/political stance, though it's a net benefit over the alternative for both Singapore and the guest workers.

"The economist Lawrence Summers, a former president of Harvard, has expressed this objection in somewhat loftier terms. In a critique of Harvard’s Pritchett, Summers explains: “Lant’s kind of compassionate libertarianism carries the risk of a morally problematic coarsening that we resist in many other ways.” The problem with guest worker programs, in other words, has nothing to do with the good of guest workers, and everything to do with the moral harm that proximate poverty might cause to their hosts. Allowing workers entry to the United States might be mutually beneficial for employer and employee, all the while producing corrosive cultural externalities. Summers seems to think that guest workers will inure Americans to a system of class stratification and undermine a shared, naive sense of global solidarity."

Randy said...

Independent of whether or not it would work in a more open society, said Singaporean guest worker program does seem to work fairly effectively in ways compatible with fairly open borders. The main problem with this seems to be that wages among Singaporean citizens have been sharply depressed by the large influx of cheaper and more exploitable foreign labour.