Immigration Reforms : “Good for Canada” or Bad for Democracy?

In January 2012, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that his government would reshape the immigration system to make it “good for Canada”. This begged the questions whether the immigration had been “bad for Canada” up to now and whether this reshaping was necessary. Nevertheless, the government did proceed to institute a series of reforms that have now become part of Canadian law. Since 2012, we have seen increased Ministerial powers to bar individuals from entering Canada for vague public policy consideration, increased Ministerial powers to declare arrivals “irregular” and imprison the arriving persons, increased powers to deport permanent residents who have committed even minor crimes, a new power to designate “Safe country of origins” to speed up deportation, and finally the increased approval of the use of Temporary Foreign Workers in Canada.

Before the public outcry surrounding the use of Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW) at RBC quiets down, it is important to fully assess the problems with the TFW program. Much has been written about it over the last few years, it is a program that entrenches the vulnerability of the workers, exploits many of them, can be abused by employers and drives down wages. The TFW Program is certainly all that, but it is also “democratically” flawed.

The Temporary Foreign Workers Program allows employers to recruit people outside of Canada to come and work in Canada. There is certainly nothing wrong with matching immigrants with jobs upon arrivals. This was often the way in which immigration took place in Canada: when the government wanted to develop the West, it offered incentives to foreign farmers to go west. But the Temporary Foreign Workers Program is different in that it does not want the workers to stay in Canada. They must go back at the end of the contract unless they can find place within a different TFWP-approved employer or fit within some exceptions to gain access to the limited permanent residency spots in a province. This is a major policy distinction with previous general policies. We now want the labour, but not the person. We want the skills, but not the responsibility to upgrade those skills. It is in that sense that the program has been aptly described as the “commodification” of human labour. It dehumanizes the worker: it is now an economic cog responding to labour shortages, it does not have a family, does not have health concerns, does not have ambitions nor dreams nor creativity, and it certainly does not have the ability to participate in the democratic governance of the country.

The TFW program has profound effects on democracy; it ensures that some sectors of the economy will never be represented in Parliament. Large segments of our economy now function with the employers having the right to vote, and the employees, not. Take a large farm where the pickers are constantly recycled through the TFWP: if the owner is Canadian, he or she will vote in the next election, but the employees will not, not in this one, nor in the next one, nor the one after that. They will not vote because they are not citizens, and the structure of the program ensures that they do not become citizens. Because the TFWP requires that employees return to their country of origins at the end of the contract and not have multiple contracts that extend beyond a certain number of years, the workers will constantly be different persons. Very few will make it to permanent residency. The majority will never stay long enough to gain citizenship and hence will never vote. There is the realistic prospect of large sectors of the economy and of Canadian society to operate in an apartheid-like manner, with some people, the boss, the owner, the manager and some privileged employees, who participate in governance while the majority of the workers do not. This divide will morally bankrupt us. It is not possible to claim legitimacy in a context where large groups of people who live and work in a country are not represented.

Some say that the right to vote will soon be extended to permanent residents for municipal elections. This would certainly alleviate the problem, but does not resolve it. It is the fungible nature of the workers that renders illusory the access to permanent residency. The appropriate course of reform is not simply to cap numbers, add a few additional bureaucratic hurdles or beef up the powers of the investigators. The only appropriate course of action is to grant permanent residency status to all workers upon arrival. If they work in Canada, they should have the possibility of eventually voting in Canada.

There is no doubt that because of the uproar over the RBC use of TFW, the program will be reformed. It is time to ask for more than cosmetic changes. They will not solve the moral issue raised by the TFWP. We should aim to have a reform that speaks to our democratic ideals at least as much as our economic ones: we should wish for an immigration policy that is “good for Canada”, that is, good for Canadian democracy.

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