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The TFWP and Harper’s smokescreen

Espe Currie

Recent changes to the policing of Canada’s controversial Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) have some Canadians questioning the safety of their civil liberties.

The changes allow agents of  Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC), the branch of government in charge of the program, to enter the premises of any business employing TFWs and search without a warrant.

Harper’s government has been reviewing the TFWP for some time, and have made other changes in the past few months: the workers must now be paid the “prevailing wage,” where before employers were permitted to pay TFWs 15 percent less than their Canadian co-workers. This decision, made in April, infuriated businesses and opponents, including the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said it would push labour offshore.

Stephen Harper has made much of the issues surrounding the TFWP, particularly after the subject entered the limelight, with RBC under fire for outsourcing labour this spring. The program, designed to fill positions when Canadians are not available to work, provided cheaper labour before the change required employers to adhere to the prevailing wage. However, this latest amendment has consequences far beyond the program itself.

HRSDC officials can now enter any business they suspect of fraud relating to the TFWP—like businesses suspected of employing undocumented foreign workers, or misreporting their use of the program. Officials are also permitted, under the new rules, access to all documents on the premises—essentially, to search without a warrant.

In their report on the change, the Globe and Mail interviewed Richard Kurland, an immigration lawyer practicing in Vancouver. “This is a civil liberties grab,” Kurland said to the paper.

It’s a tough call: both the wage change and the new policing policies are arguably beneficial for temporary foreign workers, and will prevent at least some of the worst aspects of the previous policy—systemic (and often encouraged) exploitation that benefits business at the expense of poorly paid imported labour with very few rights in this country.

But since when does Stephen Harper care about the rights of foreign workers? The TFWP and the outsourcing of labour are hot topics for Canadians these days—some are concerned about exploitation, treatment, and rights, but many are more afraid of being replaced by cheaper labour. For many people, the most damning part of the RBC fiasco was the company’s audacity in demanding Canadian workers train the outsourced staff set to replace them. The story made headlines across the country, playing on recession-era anxieties about the dwindling job market—and this latest reform seems more tacked on to the end of that outraged bandwagon and less a result of finally listening to the years of activism surrounding TFW rights.

Harper’s positions just don’t add up. His interest in the rights of foreign workers over the profits of Canadian businesses is stunningly out of character. While it will force employers who participate in the TFWP to subject to random audits, raising the standards of TFW rights immeasurably and with good reason, it also gives officials powers they have in no other branch of government, powers to enter premises unannounced, take photos and videos and seize documents. It’s hard to trust motives. Instead of wage raises, will we get deportations? Abuses of power? Degradation of privacy?

A spokesperson for Justicia For Migrant Workers, a Canadian non-profit and advocacy group, says this is precisely the concern. “While theoretically inspections may improve some work places,” says Chris Ramsaroop, an organizer with the group. “There are many more issues that may arise from federal officials entering workplaces. Will these regulations be utilized by the Canada Border Services Agency (in collaboration with Citizenship and Immigration Canada) to undertake more immigration raids on migrant worker communities?”

The change sets a troubling precedent: The rights of foreign workers are a noble cause, and Harper has used that noble cause to his advantage—a smokescreen to introduce policies open and available to government abuse without, as Ramsaroop says, addressing the fundamental problems with the TFWP.

“There are numerous issues that could have been undertaken by the federal government to protect the rights of migrants,” he says, “Including addressing recruitment fees, providing workers the ability to apply for residency to Canada, and ensuring their human rights are respected. These regulations do not address any of these concerns.”

 

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