Why Canadians are Willing to Exploit Foreign Workers

By on May 9, 2014

Many Canadians – including the unemployed – believe the jobs filled by foreign workers are beneath them

Canada finds itself in quite a pickle with its workforce. We now live in an age in which there is a whole range of jobs that our citizens won’t do.

Certainly not at the wage rates that are being offered. But, one wonders, perhaps not at any price less than a king’s ransom.

For those of us in the Boomer generation and older, this is quite an adjustment. Because it wasn’t always like this. In my lifetime, I did – or knew people who did – work in the crappiest of jobs under conditions that today would be considered slave-like: sweating in sugar beet fields in the blazing sun in scenes reminiscent of cotton pickers in the U.S. south; cooking vegetables in a cannery where the temperature often exceeded 100 F and your arms would be scalded from the splashing product.

“Do you think that was right?” my wife asked me, as I recounted these tales. Of course not, I replied.

I guess that’s the point. Today, we have achieved a level of affluence that allows us to glibly refuse to do these jobs.

For years now, we have enjoyed the fruits of cheap labour in distant impoverished nations. We get cheap T-shirts from Bangladesh because people there are desperate enough to work under conditions that we don’t have to. Is it not the next natural step in our evolution that we would import those people to do our dirty work here, too?

Slaughtering beef in Brooks, Alberta. Slinging pizzas in Weyburn, Sask. Serving up double-doubles at Tim Hortons. Flipping burgers at McDonalds. All for wages that barely cover the cost of accommodations.

And yet. And yet, there are 1.3 million Canadians right now who are unemployed. Our youth employment hovered at a worrisome 13.6 per cent, in March, according to Statistics Canada.

In Alberta, where finding a job is said to be as easy picking an apple off a tree, there are still 116,000 in the workforce who are out of a job. In Saskatchewan, another prosperous province, 26,000 able people are out of work, and in B.C. there are 142,000 people without jobs. On the East Coast, things are far worse, with jobless rates up to five points above the national average.

Out of those 1.3 million people, we can’t find anyone in our country to do these entry level jobs?

Alberta, of course, is an exceptional case. Relatively unskilled workers who are willing to travel up north can land a lucrative job in oil and gas, and avoid the low-wage trap of grocery store checkouts and burger-flippers. Those who do take jobs at restaurants leave for greener pastures by the time they’re trained.

Temporary foreign workers are like a gateway drug – you start small, and pretty soon find you’re in deeper than you ever expected to be. The C.D. Howe Institute noted in a recent report that the number of temporary foreign workers in Canada more than tripled in a decade, from 101,000 in 2002 to 338,000 in 2012.

Why? Foreign workers typically won’t complain about conditions that would drive the rest of us to rebellion. They work long hours for ridiculously low rates of pay, and many of them are known to display excellent customer service skills. In many respects, they’re the dream employees – happy to be exploited, because bad conditions here are still far better than wherever they came from.

This imposes a dampening effect on wage inflation that businesses enjoy. Many small businesses say they couldn’t even operate without those workers – if they had to hire Canadians, they’re probably just shut down.

The federal government has responded to reported abuses of the program by clamping down. That may ease the bad press, but it’s not a long-term fix. Finding a longer term solution means Canadians will have to answer some fundamental questions: Are we prepared to bring in foreign workers while our own citizens are unemployed? If we scrap the program – as some suggest – can we live with the fallout, which includes the potential that a lot of marginal businesses will fail?

Or are we happy to continue using these disadvantaged people so we can keep our fingernails clean? The answer to these questions will speak volumes about the kind of society we want to build. TroyMedia

Doug Firby is Editor-in-Chief and National Affairs columnist for Troy Media.

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