Foreign-born workers act as shock absorbers when economy crashes
March 9, 2009
In the fall, we read a lot about the plight of managers and professionals in the financial sector caused by the financial crisis. Recently, media coverage focused on the threat of losing thousands of middle-class jobs in the automobile industry. In the months to come, it will be immigrants and foreign workers who will be hit hardest by the looming economic downturn.
After supplying the labour that supported a decade of economic prosperity for Canada, foreign workers and immigrants are becoming the latest victims of a declining Canadian economy.
Throughout Canadian history, immigrants have been the shock absorbers of cyclical swings of the economy. Until the early 1990s, Canada’s immigration levels were synchronized with the business cycle, increasing during boom periods and scaling back during recessions. Although immigration levels are no longer co-ordinated with the business cycle, immigrants continue to be the last to be hired and the first to be fired.
Immigration creates the illusion that Canadian-born and educated workers are more secure in their jobs. For example, when the economic downturn forces a firm to cut its workforce, it may first lay off a foreign-educated, recent immigrant before dismissing a long-term employee with a lifetime of Canadian experience. Even lower on the pecking order are temporary foreign workers and non-status immigrants. These groups are among the most vulnerable workers in Canada.
However, the reasoning that Canadian-born workers benefit from the vulnerability of migrants is deeply flawed. My own research shows that a vulnerable workforce of immigrants at the bottom of the labour market will pull down wages and labour standards for all, including non-immigrants. In a period of economic slowdown, when workers compete for a declining number of jobs, this drag on wages and labour standards becomes a downward spiralling vortex.
In the current period of economic uncertainty, it is therefore particularly important to protect the rights of the most vulnerable workers, and to ensure that immigrants and foreigners are not forced to offer their labour to employers at cut-rate prices and for substandard working conditions.
If we look south of the border, U.S. President Barack Obama apparently understands the urgency of the matter. His picks of Hilda Solis, the daughter of Mexican-Nicaraguan immigrants, as labour secretary and Janet Napolitano as the head of the Department of Homeland Security indicate a policy shift toward strengthening the rights of immigrant workers.
The track records of Obama’s selected cabinet offer a glimpse of the politics workers in America may soon enjoy. As governor of Arizona, Napolitano vetoed several bills designed to cut benefits and target “illegal” immigration. Solis believes that union membership can help new immigrants “become a part of the American fabric.”
Here in Canada, on the other hand, the federal government seems to be more interested in maintaining a vulnerable and exploitable foreign and immigrant labour force than in lifting labour standards for all.
One of the most vulnerable segments of the labour force, temporary foreign workers, has been favoured by recent immigration practices. Over the last decade, the federal government allowed the temporary foreign workforce to more than double, providing more than 302,000 workers to Canadian employers in 2007. This increase has been applauded by Canadian businesses, which appreciate the highly “flexible” nature of these workers. Without citizenship, they do not enjoy the same economic rights and social benefits as Canadian workers and can be pressured into accepting wages and working conditions unacceptable to Canadians.
In Europe, policy-makers experimented with guest worker programs in the postwar boom years and experienced the failures of these programs. A famous saying goes: “We asked for workers but people came,” indicating that exploitation comes at human cost, and that workers will claim the rights to which they are entitled. At a recent conference in Bonn, Germany, organized by the Canadian Metropolis Project, the former president of the German parliament, Rita Suessmuth, expressed to me her bewilderment that Canada – long a role model to Europeans for its liberal immigration policies – may repeat some of the mistakes made in Europe decades ago.
Although it was not the Harper government’s intention, the new Canadian Experience Class could be a step in the right direction. This program invites foreigners with Canadian degrees and Canadian work experience to apply for permanent resident status, with the prospect of citizenship after three years. However, the target of 10,000-12,000 newcomers under this new class represents only about 2 per cent of all foreign students and temporary workers in Canada.
To improve conditions for vulnerable workers, this program should be extended to all temporary foreign workers. However, recent reports suggest that even the government’s meagre target will not be met because of delays in launching the program and eligibility criteria that many workers cannot meet.
Another initiative by the Harper government aims at fast-tracking skilled immigrants if they practise one of 38 high-demand occupations. The fact that financial managers top this list, in a period of financial crisis, indicates how difficult it is for government policies to respond to fluctuations in labour demand.
Rather than using immigration as a shock absorber to cope with a crashing economy, policy initiatives should ensure the equal and fair treatment of all workers, including foreigners, non-status residents and immigrants.
At the core of such policy initiatives should be the strengthening of the representation of immigrants and foreign workers in labour unions and protecting foreign workers and non-status immigrants under provincial employment legislation. Recent programs assisting immigrants in getting their foreign credentials recognized are another excellent example of efforts enabling immigrants to obtain the jobs and wages that correspond to their skills.
We cannot allow the most vulnerable workers in our society to assume the burden of an economic downturn. Protecting these workers is in the interest of all Canadians.
Harald Bauder is an associate professor of geography at Ryerson University.
Reference: Toronto Star