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A nasty, nasty business

in Featured/To Each Their Own by

“Dropping her face onto her knees and wrapping her arms around her head, she weeps like a child. Eventually her crying gives way to small gulps, then stops. But she stays, hunched against the rock, face hidden in the tweed of her old skirt. The rough cloth, still smelling faintly of home, soothes her. She begins to relax, to examine what has happened, to think about where she is, what she might become. She has never thought of herself this way before, as a person alone…a girl sitting on a sea-swept shore, husbandless, friendless, penniless, a sack containing all she owns lying beside her on the sand.”

Thus Bernice Morgan describes the arrival of a migrant worker to Newfoundland in the opening of her classic novel Random Passage.

Today we romanticize these courageous and hard-working migrant workers who bravely traveled across the globe to a strange land and who built the culture and communities we take pride in today.

Last week another group of migrant workers arrived in Newfoundland from far overseas – even farther than England. But there’s a couple things that make their experience very different from that of Lavinia in Random Passage – and it’s not just the time period (or the fact they’re from Thailand).

Unlike the romanticized [white-skinned] Irish and British and Scottish migrants of yesteryear, these Thai workers will probably not be allowed to stay. They will not be allowed to build a future, and they will not be given the chance to invigorate our local communities the way previous waves of migrant workers have. And that’s a problem.

And it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Sorting out the issues

In the furor over a Bay de Verde seafood plant owned by Quinlan Brothers importing 20 Thai workers to work in the plant there (while other fish plants across the island are closing and laying off workers), a lot of issues are getting muddled together. One of those issues is the ongoing “reform” (in the sense that a freshly-baked cake gets ‘reformed’ into moldy batter) of the EI system, and how it will affect the labour market. There are problems with those ‘reforms’. Lots of them. But I’m going to set them aside and not deal with them here. (stay tuned for a future column on that)

The other issue – and it’s a very, very critical issue – is the existence, and use, of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program in Canada. More generally, it’s a problem with the way migrant labour is being structured (actually, *restructured*, the same way a majestic skyscraper gets restructured by a wrecking ball) in this country. The Temporary Foreign Worker Program is one of a number of migrant worker programs in this country, but most of them have one thing in common: they involve foreign workers being recruited for specific jobs, for a limited time, under extremely strict conditions and being denied many of the rights of other residents of Canada.

Regardless of whether or not there were local workers willing and able to take the jobs, the use of temporary foreign workers will not benefit this community, or the province.

If you’re thinking this sounds awful, well congratulations: you’re a decent human being. Regardless of whether or not there were local workers willing and able to take the jobs, the use of temporary foreign workers will not benefit this community, or the province. The vast majority of workers brought in under temporary foreign worker programs are unable to bring their families, and are unable to settle in the community. They are unable to look for other work. They’re unable to stay. They’re brought in to do a job, and then kicked out. Moreover, some temporary foreign worker programs restrict the number of years low-skilled workers are able to work – meaning the law prevents them from forming long-term relationships with their community.

Although it’s unclear under what specific contract conditions these workers have been brought in, most of these conditional programs will not benefit the long-term sustainability of Bay de Verde. What Bay de Verde needs is workers willing to relocate – or immigrate – with their families and consider making a life there. Which would mean more schools, and teachers. Which would mean more shops and services and entertainment. Which would mean more medical clinics and doctors and nurses. That’s what communities around the province need. And that means employers have to offer better pay, better incentives, and better and more secure working conditions to attract workers. It means the government has to invest in infrastructure (telecommunications networks, wireless internet, health care facilities) for the communities.

Instead, what’s happening across most of the country is absolutely dysfunctional from a public policy standpoint: temporary foreign workers being brought in to meet the profit-making needs of employers for short-term cheap labour and then they’re sent away. That’s won’t heal the ailments of rural Newfoundland: it’s like covering a festering wound with a cheap bandage.

Short-term thinking has replaced labour market policy

Labour market policy in this country used to be about figuring out how to promote immigration that would build our communities and weave together a strong economy. Today, short-term programs have taken their place. The Temporary Foreign Worker Program, Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, and Live-In Caregiver Program are three key examples. Under all of these, workers are not brought in as permanent residents – they’re brought in to labour under sub-par wages to support the lifestyles and needs of wealthier Canadian citizens. This is not just the degradation of sensible public policy – it’s a slow rotting away of fundamental principles of equality, human rights, and social justice in this country.

Last month, the federal Conservative government announced changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program that will intensify this wrecking ball of public policy. Now employers will be able to bring in temporary foreign workers more quickly and with less scrutiny. Even more insidiously, they will be able to pay them 15% less than the prevailing wage rate. Until now, this has been forbidden – in order to prevent employers from importing foreign workers when there were local workers needing jobs. Now there is a virtual carte blanche for employers to import foreign workers in order to pay them less.

Stop being unaware! It’s actually not cool!

The response of Fisheries Minister Darin King, according to CBC, was that he was “not aware” of what was happening.

Quite frankly, we need to stop hearing pleas of ignorance from our provincial government. If they don’t know what’s going on in the province, they need to get better at finding out. Our provincial government needs to know what’s happening in the province, and why, and needs to be involved in decisions like whether to start importing workers under temporary low-skilled labour programs while there’s a 14.4% unemployment rate in the area.

“They refused to allow Roman Catholics to operate public houses; they limited the number of Irish allowed to live in any one household. They discouraged the practice of bringing out Irish women to get work. One excuse given by Governor Palliser was that these “young girls who are destitute of friends” were often found to be pregnant shortly after their arrival in Newfoundland, and therefore became a charge on the inhabitants.” (F.W. Rowe, History of Newfoundland and Labrador)

The fact that those involved – and their umbrella organization, the Association of Seafood Producers – didn’t even have the respect or courtesy to discuss their plans with government says a lot. Among other things, it raises questions about how deeply these companies care about the impact their business plans have on promoting – or undermining – the well-being of our communities and our economy. Decisions such as these need to be made publicly and accountably. Announcing their plans would have allowed government – and media, and community organizations – to make sure that indeed nobody was trying to get jobs and being turned down. It would have allowed for a public debate in the community (and adjoining communities) about labour market policy in their region. It would have allowed, at the very least, for efforts to be made to ensure the incoming workers are made at home and integrated into the community (as best they are able, given federal policy restrictions). Companies need to realize their obligations and responsibilities to the community (hint: more than just offering low-wage jobs!), and that such considerations come before their bottom line. And if they’re unwilling to do so, we need a provincial government that is willing to act proactively to make them.

There are options

Despite the regressive policies of the federal government, there are measures our provincial government can take to ensure that Newfoundland and Labrador does not become a haven for the exploitation of racialized migrant workers. Immigration policy is under federal jurisdiction, but labour law is under provincial jurisdiction. And that’s where our provincial government can exert control.

First of all, there should be a renewed drive to increase the minimum wage in this province. Although we have a higher minimum wage than some provinces, we still have the second lowest personal income per capita (and the lowest share of GDP going into workers’ wages and salaries) in the entire country. This is a sign that our private sector are lagging behind the rest of the country and paying workers little more than minimum wage (as we can see from Quinlan Brothers’ decision to import foreign workers rather than offer unemployed locals a higher wage).

The solution – if private sector employers aren’t willing to share the benefits of a booming economy with their workers – is to make them…let’s increase the minimum wage.

The solution – if private sector employers aren’t willing to share the benefits of a booming economy with their workers – is to make them. If they’re determined to pay workers little more than the minimum wage, then let’s increase the minimum wage. This will drive wages up in the province as a whole: everyone will benefit. Companies that aren’t able or willing to meet the new expectations – despite all the tax breaks and subsidies they’ve received in recent years (poor boo-boos) – might shut down (I doubt it), but in a ‘growing’ economy other, more capable companies will quickly rise to take their place. Beauty of the free market, yo.

Here’s some other measures that can be adopted, to address not just temporary foreign workers in the fishery, but the growing numbers of temporary foreign workers in other industries (like Tim Hortons) and foreign live-in caregivers:

–> The vast majority of domestic migrant workers are women, many of whom are particularly at risk of situations of abuse, harassment, health/pregnancy concerns (without adequate medical coverage), and supporting children in their home countries. Given the gendered nature of migrant domestic labour, the provincial government ought to boost resources (financial and staffing) to existing agencies like the Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women (or, in partnership with them, form a new arms-length agency) with a specific mandate to monitor and address the needs of female migrant domestic workers.

–> Mandatory workshops/sessions with all new migrant workers to the province to advise them of their legal rights and avenues through which to file complaints. This can double as an opportunity to provide information on health care, local cultural and support organizations, and a general orientation to living and working in Newfoundland and Labrador.

–> Specific legislation to protect migrant workers. In light of the extensive abuses and outcries that have occurred in other jurisdictions, several provinces – including Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia – have introduced specific pieces of legislation designed to address the unique situation of migrant workers. For a starter, the provincial government needs to license recruiting agencies to ensure they’re operating according to high standards and not, for instance, charging recruitment fees or otherwise profiting off the workers being brought here (decent recruiting agencies profit off fees paid by the employer, not the poor migrant worker). Many horrendous cases of unscrupulous recruiting agencies have been uncovered in other jurisdictions. There also need to be stiffer fines and penalties for companies that abuse migrant workers. Given the fact many of those workers are in even more vulnerable positions than local workers (due to language barriers, unfamiliarity with the culture and rights of this country, isolation, less protection under federal law, vulnerability to deportation, lack of support networks) and that data suggests companies are more prone to exploit migrant workers, there should be stiffer penalties levied against companies that do, as a deterrent. Also, companies planning to use migrant workers need to be required to register with the provincial government in advance, in order to ensure government is able to monitor them. And there needs to be ‘no reprisal’ legislation, guaranteeing that workers who complain about their employers can’t be threatened with deportation.

–> A standardized employment contract template provided by the Department of Human Resources, Labour and Employment. Much akin to the standardized rental agreement the government provides on its website, companies could still produce their own but this would provide a ready-made default for first-time employers. When you hire a domestic worker to look after an ailing grandparent, chances are you’ve never been an employer before and even the most well-intentioned of us probably doesn’t really have a clue what an employment contract should look like, let alone what all the relevant laws are. A standardized employment contract could ensure that new migrant workers – who often don’t have any familiarity with local labour laws and protections – have a decent agreement to regulate their employment in this province, and one that can be referred to (and explained) in the case of a dispute.

–> A hotline for migrant worker complaints – with staff trained in the key languages used by migrant workers in this province – and a division of HRLE staffed and resourced to respond quickly to complaints of exploitation of workers. When the Alberta government bowed to pressure from labour unions in that province and started doing random spot checks on employers of temporary foreign workers, 72% of those employers were found to be violating labour laws. That’s, like, A LOT.

–> Additional funding and resources for language training, computer literacy, and other skills needs for migrant workers. Some of this can be achieved by increasing funding and resources to local agencies such as the Association for New Canadians which are already doing excellent work with the meagre budgets they have. In fact, the provincial government helped produce this report which outlines the lack of resources for temporary foreign workers in Newfoundland and Labrador and makes some of these same recommendations. Although it’s possible they’re “not aware” they already did this work.

–> As this United Nations document attests, the best support for migrant workers comes from within their own communities. The provincial government ought to provide targeted funding for the establishment of self-organized community groups for migrant workers. This will help to establish a sense of community among the newcomers, provide them a support network as they struggle to learn about the Newfoundland and Labrador lifestyle and in case they encounter problems, and the community groups will also be able to provide a bridge connecting them to our existing communities. Think how much richer our culture will be if migrant workers are able to participate on an equal basis in organizing events, festivals, and community initiatives; and are able to participate in an organized fashion in our existing festivals and cultural community. It’ll create a far more enriching cultural fabric than if these workers are isolated and forced to stay in suburban homes in the east end. Or worse yet…Mount Pearl.

Let’s have some vision, please.

Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking we’re being saints by providing an opportunity to workers from a poor country to earn some extra cash. Dr. Aziz Choudry and a team of researchers from McGill and Concordia universities explained in a 2009 book on the plight of migrant workers that Canadian mining corporations and free trade agreements have been one of the major causes forcing poor rural workers off their land and forcing them to migrate (here) to support their families.

It’s a vicious cycle. And it gets worse. A 2009 report by the Office for Systemic Justice of the Sisters of St. Joseph in London, Ontario (yup! Nuns. Them black-clad radicals!) investigated the use of temporary foreign workers in Canada and reported “While some of the workers under the Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP) have had satisfactory work placements, others have endured exploitation including fraud, misrepresentation, unjust salary and working conditions as well as unsafe and unhealthy living conditions. In listening to the stories of exploited migrant workers, we have noted significant elements of trafficking in human persons including a direct link between recruitment agents in Thailand/ Indonesia and contracting agents in Canada. The accounts of exploited migrant workers also reveal elements of unpayable debt, coercion and control. Migrant workers are not coming forward to apply for a Temporary Resident Permit as a Trafficked Person because they do not feel protected under the current legislation.”

“The accounts of exploited migrant workers also reveal elements of unpayable debt, coercion and control. Migrant workers are not coming forward…because they do not feel protected under the current legislation.”

This is not of course to say that this is – or will be – happening in Newfoundland and Labrador. But we won’t know until we start asking questions, conducting investigations, and passing legislation to prevent abuse. And until our government has a response that says a little bit more than that they were “not aware” it was going on.

Newfoundland and Labrador needs the immigrants – both those who have moved away, as well as the newcomers who have yet to arrive – to rebuild our communities, our services, and our economy. To do that, we need businesses that serve the needs of their communities first and foremost; business operations that offer good high wages, benefits, and secure permanent working conditions. We need a government that knows what’s happening in the province, and that is willing to craft labour legislation that promotes not the needs of a handful of business elites, but that promotes the development of strong vibrant communities and economies from one end of this province to the other. We need a government that will provide the strong regulatory framework, the firm and principled guiding hand, and the vision to achieve that.

Unfortunately, right now we have neither. And until we do, we’ll continue hurtling around in a decaying economic orbit, and future generations will curse the inaction of the present generation, much like we look back at our history 200 years ago and shake our heads at the missed opportunities and lost chances and cast-aside greatness that could have been.

“Those of us who had to leave remember the songs and the stories. In the morning sunlight of our leavings, last goodbyes with our loved ones are heightened by vivid images of our native land…the very landscape seems to join with our songs and our poems to mourn our leaving as we go across the water, beyond, abroad, in search of places where we can live our lives, where we can find fulfillment for our hopes and dreams.” (Sheelagh Conway, The Faraway Hills Are Green)

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