Temporary Foreign Workers and Political Agency in Canada

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Temporary foreign worker programs have accelerated rapidly in Canada in recent decades, with important consequences for democratic participation in Canada and migrants’ countries of origin. Since Canada’s Non-immigrant Employment Authorization Program was established in 1973, and expanded with the introduction of Bill C-11 in 2001, a number of programs have facilitated the entrance of (im)migrants as workers, but make it increasingly difficult for certain groups to enter, live, and work as permanent residents and, eventually, formal citizens (Sharma 2001: 416). Through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, Live-In Caregiver Program, Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, the Low Skilled Pilot, and other initiatives, Canada brings in over 150,000 people a year to work temporarily (CIC 2012), with numbers reaching 238,093 in 2004. Although these workers are employed in various sectors, an increasingly small percentage enter under the “high skilled” category while those arriving under “low-skilled” categories more than doubled from 2002-2008 (Flecker 2010: 21). The shift towards mostly low-skilled and low-waged temporary foreign workers has been accompanied by feminization and racialization (Trumper and Wong 2007). The result is a growing ‘underclass’ of politically impotent residents. Their contributions are, however, increasingly essential to diverse low-wage employments in Canada and to the balance of payments calculations of many source countries, such as the Philippines.

A range of scholars and community organizations have documented (and often struggled to address) the forms of exclusion and the labor and human rights abuses that characterize temporary foreign worker programs in Canada and other industrialized countries (see, for example: Arat-Koc 1997; Creese 2007; Fudge & MacPhail 2009; Sharma 2006; Thomas 2010; Vosko 2010). As these scholars and activists have documented, the vast majority of vulnerable arrivals are legally bound to one specific employer and changing employers often means losing legal immigration status and possible deportation. These workers, who in much of the 20th century would have been viewed as ‘new Canadians’, a term with very different implications for inclusion and (future) equality, often experience significant constraints on their social and physical mobility. Evidence is plentiful that employers use myriad techniques to limit freedom of movement and perpetuate social and cultural isolation (Arat-Koc 1997; Bakan and Stasiulis 1996; Sharma 2006; No One is Illegal 2012; Diocson 2003).

Less attention has been focused on the ways in which temporary foreign work programs curtail migrants’ political agency and structurally restrict their ability to exert rights. Analysing parliamentarian debates from 1969 to 1973, sociologist Nandita Sharma has argued that Canadian MPs invoked a discourse of fear that effectively legitimized a non-immigrant or migrant worker category that strips people of most of the human, civil, and other “rights” of citizenship available to “Canadians” (2001: 419). Prohibited from voting, unionizing, and with little recourse to the state, law, or the police in the face of violations of the few rights accorded to them, today’s arrivals face significant barriers to political agency. The inequitable integration of temporary foreign migrant workers involves multiple exclusions from their home places, families, and often opportunities for having children, as well as from social and political entitlements received by workers with citizenship status. While increasingly critical to the operations of the Canadian economy, they are rarely treated as future citizens (Arat-Koc 1997: 56). Their predicament recalls the earlier reception of Asian migrants, such as the Chinese railway workers who were expected to return ‘home’ even when they sacrificed health and family life to develop the nation. The fact that so most disadvantaged temporary workers are not European in origin and are so often women seems hardly coincidental. They have never been treated equitably when it came to citizenship.


Further Reading: 

Citizenship and Immigration Canada. 2012. ‘Working Temporarily in Canada.’ Available online: http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/work/index.asp

Creese, G. 2007. “Racializing Work, Reproducing White Privilege” in Work and Labour in Tumultuous Times: Critical Perspectives in Vivian Shalla and Wallace Clement

(editors). Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, pp. 192-116.

Fudge, J., & MacPhail, F. 2009. The Temporary Foreign Worker Program in Canada: Low-Skilled Workers as an Extreme Form of Flexible Labour. Comparative Labor Law and Policy Journal Vol. 31, pp. 101-139.

Flecker, K. 2010. “Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program, Model Program – Or

Mistake?” Ottawa: Canadian Labour Congress.

Gates-Gasse, E. 2010. “’Two-Step Immigration’: Canada’s New Immigration System Raises Troubling Issues”. Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Available online: http://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/monitor/two-stepimmigration

Gross, D. and Schmitt, N. 2009. “Temporary Foreign Workers and Regional Labour Market Disparities in Canada”. Metropolis British Columbia Center of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Diversity, Working Paper Series. No.09-05, June 2009. Vancouver, B.C.

Sharma, N. 2002. “Immigrant and migrant workers in Canada: Labour movements, racism and the expansion of globalization” in Canadian Woman Studies, Vol. 22, No. 4, pp. 17–25.

Sharma, N. 2006. Home economics: nationalism and the making of ‘migrant workers’ in

Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Thomas, M. 2010. “Labour Migration and Temporary Work: Canada’s Foreign Worker Programs in the ‘New Economy’” in Interrogating the New Economy: Restructuring Work in the 21st Century. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp. 149-172.

Trumper, R. and Wong L. 2007. “Canada’s Guest Workers: Racialized, Gendered, and Flexible” in Race and Racism in 21st-Century Canada: Continuity, Complexity, and Change. Sean Hier and Bolaria Singh (editors). Peterborough: Broadview Press.


LeBaron, Genevieve

LeBaron, Genevieve

LeBaron, Genevieve

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