The Making of a Global Disposable Workforce

and the rise of Canada’s “Rent-a-worker” program

by Malcolm Guy and Marie Boti

A sea change is underway in Canada as the country shifts away from traditional immigration towards a “rent a worker” policy all too prevalent around the globe. And it is taking place without public debate or official announcements.

November 2010, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico: At a majestic conference centre in this tourist mecca on Mexico’s Pacific coast, the future of one billion people, the world’s migrant workers, is being discussed at the government-supported Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD).


We are presently completing a documentary on Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program, entitled The End of Immigration (La fin de l’immigration?) to be broadcast on Radio Canada (and elsewhere we hope) in the spring of 2012. This article originally appeared in the magazine, Canadian Dimension (May 17, 2011 – http://canadiandimension.com/articles/3974/ ).


Two Filipino temporary workers with a supporter in Winnipeg, Canada. The two workers, along with a co-worker, were recently deported from Canada.

Meanwhile, hundreds of migrant workers, their families and supporters, who have traveled two days by bus from another very important but less ostentatious forum on migration in Mexico City, the International Assembly of Migrants and Refugees (IAMR), are trying to have their voices heard by the delegates to the GFMD. But riot police keep them far enough away that their cries for justice go unheard over the clink of wine glasses and opening speeches for the 700 delegates from 131 countries.

In many ways, these two conferences symbolize two sides of a crucial debate around the largest mobility of workers ever seen[i]and the “legal trade” in a global disposable workforce of 1 billion migrants, of which approximately one quarter migrate internationally and three quarters internally; a debate in which Canadian corporations and their supporters in Ottawa, far from being innocent observers, are actively participating in and profiting from.

We stress the term “legal trade”, because the purported intention of the officials is to regulate the import and export of workers through international and bilateral agreements and codes of conduct. Indeed, the GFMD stresses the need to monitor and harmonize the flow even more to avoid “irregular migration”, trafficking in people and sexual exploitation. The regulation includes militarizing borders and toughening up controls on migrants, treating them all as suspects of illegal entry. Meanwhile, it is the private sector, employers, agencies and other intermediaries that are in charge of matching supply and demand, and inevitably, there is a conflict of interest between profit motive and the basic human rights and treatment of the traded workers.

Of course, as they focus on managing the flow of migrants, officials are not questioning why millions of workers are obliged to leave their homeland to find a job, and what can be done about that.

As documentary filmmakers, we have been following the trends in migration for a number of years. It was our continuing contact with community-based migrant organizations such as the Immigrant Workers Centre (IWC) in Montreal that alerted us some four years ago to alarming new trends taking shape in the world of labour migration, as temporary foreign workers seeking assistance began entering through the Centre’s doors.

Global Forum on Migration and Development

It is rather fitting that the fourth GFMD took place in Mexico, one of the major labour exporting and trans-migratory countries in the world. The Mexico-US border is the most frequently crossed international border in the world[ii] with 350 million passages per year[iii], including an estimated 500,000 to one million “illegal” passages; several hundred migrants are killed every year trying to make their way across the border[iv].

Initially convened after a 2005 United Nations (UN) high-level dialogue on migration and development, the GFMD, while not formally part of the UN process, is aimed at providing a venue for labour-receiving and labour-sending countries to trade strategies around instituting temporary labour migration programs.

After holding its first meeting in Brussels in 2007, the GFMD held sessions in  Manila and Athens. The central theme in Puerto Vallarta was “Partnerships for Migration and Development: Shared Prosperity – Shared Responsibility”. The GFMD believes that the massive migration of workers, if it is managed in partnerships – among governments, civil society organizations, public and private sectors along with migrants – will lead to “development” and “reduction of poverty and inequality”.

“Pegged as a ‘win-win-win’ for both governments and migrants themselves, temporary labour migration programs are being celebrated as the best solution to labour-receiving governments’ demand for cheap foreign workers to whom they are unwilling to extend full citizenship rights, to labour-sending governments’ need to address domestic unemployment, and to bolster foreign exchange reserves, and migrants’ and their families’ need for liveable wages,” according to Robyn Rodriguez, a professor at Rutgers University.

The Philippines is held up as a model in these fora; it is the world’s #1 labour exporter per capita, sending out over 3000 workers every day to work abroad. The money these workers send back home to their families – $16.4 billion in 2008, $17.4 billion in 2009 – is the largest source of income in the country, and has been growing —despite serious global economic downturns; migrants generally try to stick it out and continue to send money to dependent loves ones back home.

But as to whether this is leading to development of the country, is another matter. The number of migrant workers being shipped out has grown steadily for over three decades, yet generation after generation of workers still have no means of decent livelihood at home and are obliged to seek work abroad.

The perspective of the migrants themselves was the framework for the other conference, the Third International Assembly of Migrants and Refugees (IAMR3), which took place in Mexico City just before the GFMD. Previous counter-conferences were held prior to the GFMD meetings in Manila and Athens as well.

The IAMR3 was organized by migrants’ organizations from four continents to challenge the view that migration will lead to development for the countries of the global South. Instead, delegates to this forum revealed that social dislocation, mistreatment and “slave-like” conditions are too often the norm for the world’s migrant workers; they also heard how the benefits of this mobile and relatively cheap labour force they were part of accrued mostly to the countries of the North and their huge monopolies.

As the first such gathering in the Americas, fifteen international organizations from Mexico, Central and South America, the US, Canada, Europe and Asia were represented. They included groups like Migrante International, the International Migrants Alliance, Miredes International (Mexico), La Alianza de Ex-Braceros del Norte 1942-64 and the Madres de los desaparecidos (Mothers of the Disappeared) from Honduras.

“There is no consideration for the root causes of migration or the difficult and often abusive conditions facing migrants. Rather, migration is perceived as a tool for economic development with individual migrants valued only for the dollars they send back home,” said Julia Camagong, coordinator of the international secretariat of the IAMR3.

The IAMR was preceded by an International Tribunal of Conscience which exposed human rights violations involving migrant workers on a huge scale. Just weeks before the conference got underway, 72 migrant workers were slaughtered in Tamaulipas, in northeast Mexico. The 58 men and 14 women were found piled in a room, like « discarded contraband », wrote the New York Times. The migrants in transit through Mexico from Central and South America were on their way to the United States, but as is too often the case, were waylaid and sequestered by drug smugglers, this time on a ranch 100 miles south of Texas. They apparently refused to pay extortion fees and were executed. The sole survivor, shot in the neck, heard their screams for mercy as he fled.

Camilo Pérez Bustillo, professor of law and one of the jurors on the Tribunal, said the massacre of the 72 migrant workers Tamaulipas was not an isolated case. “Mexico is a vast cemetery of some 70,000 dead and assassinated migrants and total impunity reigns,” Bustillo said, the horrific “hidden” social and human cost of migration.

Canada’s rent-a-worker policy

Canadian officials were present in Puerto Vallarta, but reluctant to meet with the authors to discuss Canada’s positions, despite several requests.

Perhaps this reluctance to speak has something to do with Canada’s shift to a “temporary foreign worker” program (TFWP) to meet labour market needs, a sort of “rent-a-worker” program all too popular among states around the globe.

In 2008, for the first time in recent history, the number of temporary workers coming to Canada surpassed the number of permanent residents and immigrants to the country (see chart). They are no longer limited to seasonal agricultural workers and live-in caregivers, but work in fast food, commercial laundries, hotels, construction, food-packing plants, slaughterhouses, warehouses and other industries.

Canada, quite rightly, is known as a land of immigrants. In 2006, approximately 20% of the population in Canada was foreign-born, a higher proportion than any other country except Australia (22%).[v] The vast majority of our citizens are descendants of immigrants and migrants, except for the indigenous people who make up over four percent of the population.

Today Canada’s labour force is shrinking and the birth rate not keeping up with labour market needs. About 2/3 of Canada’s population growth comes from net international migration.[vi]

Yet how we bring people into Canada to meet labour market needs will shape the evolving nature of Canada itself.

Armine Yalnizyan, a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Aternatives wrote in the Globe and Mail [vii]*: “ Immigration and temporary foreign workers are two very different answers to the problem of how to sustain our standard of living. Immigration is driven by people wanting to settle in this country, and the entry quotas are set by public policy to meet the public interest of Canadians. Temporary foreign work permits are issued to meet the needs of employers who, ostensibly, face labour shortages that cannot be addressed by Canadian workers. This process is not based on quotas. In principle and practice, there are no upper limits. These workers are brought into Canada as, essentially, the guests of the employer. They have few rights (of which they are often unaware). They have no access to services available to other immigrants. Theirs is rarely a path to permanent residency.”

Capitalism – a long history of labour migration

Labour mobility is very much at the core of capitalist industrialization with continuing internal migration from countryside to city and from one region to another. Internationally, the imperialist empires industrialized and settled large areas of the world on the backs of migrant labour, most notably through the slave trade that allowed a huge captive workforce to be transported from Africa to the U.S., Brazil and other parts of the Americas (including Canada).

According to Sonny Africa, director of research at the Philippine economic think-tank, IBON, “One of the main thrusts of “globalization” since the 1980’s has been to expand the global stock of cheap labour. This has been achieved in two ways. First, the labour force for capitalist exploitation has been effectively doubled by the integration of China (800 million workers), the former Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe as well as by the increased integration of other Asian countries in global production processes.

“Second, migration enables elite global economic interests to simply import increasing numbers of willing low-skilled workers, skilled workers and professionals.”

“Employers can then choose from this expanded labour force and hire foreign workers as cheaply as possible, while also keeping domestic workers and their demands in line by using the twin threats of hiring cheaper migrants and possible relocation to cheap labour enclaves abroad. The increased competition for jobs is inevitably used to exert downward pressure on wages and salaries.”

Road to development?

Has this migration been the road to development as the GFMD argues? Certainly the classic slave trade did not help Africa “develop”; in fact it stole its most valuable resource. But is the situation not different today, especially given that the migrants send back billions in remittances?

According to IBON’s Sonny Africa, migrant supplying countries like the Philippines “lose when their skilled workforce is depleted by the siphoning off of their best and brightest.” The imbalance is amplified further, he said, considering that each migrant represents, to differing degrees, social investments by their home countries such as their formal education as well as the resources for their subsistence, upkeep and overall development. Far from building up the local industries and infrastructure, Africa said, most of the remittance money goes into basic expenditures like lodging along with education and health care for migrants’ children and dependants, with the local elite using the money this adds to the Gross Domestic Product to pay off foreign debts.

“If their productive years are spent abroad then the largest portion of their labour accrues to the foreign host economy and the home country at most only receives the value of the remittances they send back. … Migrant-sending countries are in effect reduced to being mere breeding-grounds for cheap labour that eventually work in overseas economies,” Africa concluded.

Indeed, countries of the south are now competing with each other to supply labour to receiving countries.

Amy Sim, Professor of Sociology at the University of Hong Kong who specializes in Globalization and Migration, said, “The Philippine government  targeted to send abroad two million overseas workers in 2009 alone. Indonesia had a one million per year target. And it is seen as an indicator of success when they are able to meet those targets. But it is in fact an indicator of failure, the failure of the state to support its citizens and to generate sufficient jobs for them at home.”

Migrante International (MI), a grassroots organization of migrants from the Philippines, takes a dual approach to its work with migrants.

“On one hand, we defend the rights and welfare of our Filipino migrant brothers and sisters,” said Marco Luciano, a spokesperson for Migrante Canada, the Canadian chapter of MI.

“On the other hand, we also see ourselves as part of the struggle to change the situation in the Philippines, so that forced migration will no longer be a dominant feature in our society. The key is genuine land reform, national industrialization and development for and by the people that creates real jobs and true democracy at home. Only then can migration be a choice, rather than the only way to a decent life for working Filipinos,” Luciano said.

Do most Canadians want a two-tiered society, one made up of citizens with full rights and another underclass of temporary “rent-a-workers” who do not enjoy the same basic rights as other workers while Canadian society profits from their labour, and indeed from their payments into a social service system that they will never benefit from? Unions, community organizations, the churches and other organizations are answering a resounding no and have taken up the struggle. More to come…


[i] UN Secretary General Ban Ki moon opening speech at GFMD, Athens

[ii] Guinness World Book of Records 2009

[iii] “US-Mexico opens first new border crossing in 10 years,” AFP, 12 January 2010

[iv] .”Border-crossing Deaths Have Doubled Since 1995;” US Government Accountability Office, August 2006

[v] Statistics Canada.2008. “2006 Census: Ethnic origins, visible minorities, place of work and mode of transportation” The Daily, April 2. Quoted from The Canadian Chamber of Commerce. Policy Brief. Economic Policy series. February 2009.

[vi] Statistics Canada, Immigration: An Overview

[vii] Globe and Mail editorial, 18 February 2011

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