One of the most disgraceful aspects of Canadian labour policy has come under the spotlight after Canadian banking giant RBC recently sacked 45 workers within their information technology (IT) division, outsourcing those jobs to lower-waged workers from India. What was supposed to be a minor shuffling of jobs has, instead, become a raging scandal that has exposed how far the capitalist class is willing to go to undermine workers’ wages and rights — and all of it openly supported by the federal government.
The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) was originally created to supposedly help fill labour shortages in Canada, especially in cases where skilled positions could not be filled by existing Canadian workers. In reality, the program has been an opening for the bosses to further push down wages for all workers, in addition to massively exploiting foreign workers who are not subject to the same labour laws as their Canadian counterparts.
In February, 45 workers at RBC’s IT division were told that their jobs were being contracted out to iGATE, an Indian-based firm that would be bringing in its own workers, at a much lower cost, using the government’s temporary worker visa program. The hypocrisy of the program became quickly evident when the sacked RBC workers were told that they would need to train their new replacements before being terminated! One RBC employee, Dave Moreau, told the CBC, “The new people are in our offices and we are training them to do our jobs. That adds insult to injury.” The insult is even greater considering that RBC’s profit in the first quarter of 2012/13 was up by 12% from a year earlier, to a record $2.07-billion.
Not surprisingly, RBC has come under a barrage of criticism; but what has been surprising is that even its ostensible allies, such as the federal Conservative government itself, have been quick to condemn RBC’s actions. The Harper Tories have had to admit that the Temporary Foreign Worker Program is perhaps not working as it should and that it is perhaps being “misused” by employers. RBC has attempted to defend itself by arguing that it is using the same methods and tools as all of the other major Canadian banks.
And this is the real reason why the Tories are scrambling to distance themselves from RBC and the other banks. The scandal around the Temporary Foreign Worker Program has quickly grown much larger than one Canadian bank’s bungled attempt to use it, and has revealed just how widely Canadian businesses are using a government-sanctioned program to further undermine jobs and wages for Canadian workers. The ruling class’ dirty little secret been laid bare for all to see.
The program has become especially attractive to bosses since the latest financial crisis; the number of workers under temporary work visas in Canada has more than doubled, to nearly 340,000, since 2006. The program’s defenders, including the federal government, argue that it is necessary for such a program to exist while Canadians wait to be trained in the skills needed for the economy to function. However, investigations by both the CBC and the Globe and Mail show how ridiculous these claims really are and how the temporary foreign worker program has become a regular recruiting tool for Canadian firms.
According to documents obtained by the Globe and Mail, over 33,000 companies and organizations applied to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, including the CBC and the Globe and Mail themselves. When one looks through the businesses using the TFWP, it becomes abundantly clear that the program’s real aim is to undermine wages earned by workers; it is hard to believe that fast-food chains such as Tim Horton’s and Subway are having a terrible difficulty in finding enough Canadians skilled in the art of sandwich-making, yet both companies made ample use of the program. Even church groups and NGOs have secured the use of temporary foreign workers!
Far from being an exception to the rule, RBC’s use of temporary workers is simply representative of the Canadian bourgeois. Since the financial crisis began, the mantra from the ruling class has been, “We must all share the pain.” However, only one side has been bearing the pains of austerity so far; corporate profits have skyrocketed to new record heights, while stable well-paid union jobs have rapidly disappeared.
The hypocrisy of Canadian labour policy is even more biting as the latest numbers from Statistics Canada reveal that the Canadian economy is once again contracting, and it is workers who continue to carry the costs of the economic crisis. In March, as news of the firings at RBC was starting to hit the news, the Canadian economy shed over 85,000 jobs (which includes Canadian workers who abandoned the labour force), the largest one-month decrease in over four years. In parts of Atlantic Canada, the unemployment rate stands at over 12%. Yet to listen to the captains of capital, you would think there is a tremendous surplus of jobs that cannot be filled across the country!
Combined with the TFWP scandal are the new regulations that curtail employment insurance (EI) benefits, introduced by the federal government earlier this year. The changes to EI are meant to get unemployed workers off of EI and force them to take precarious low-wage jobs. The new changes now require unemployed workers to take jobs that pay as little as 70% of their previous income, and located an hour (or more) away; if they refuse, they may have their EI benefits revoked.
Unsatisfied with their current rates of profit, the Canadian bosses are intent to further hammer down wages and pressure workers to give up all of the reforms and rights that they won in the post-war period. If any group of workers dares to fight back, the bosses can have a reserve pool of precarious and unemployed workers ready to take those jobs away. And, this is all sanctioned by the law.
This is what the ruling class has in store for workers under austerity capitalism.
Good enough to Work, Good enough to Stay
As part of the fight back, the labour movement should be demanding the unconditional repeal of programs such as the TFWP. Temporary foreign workers are some of the most exploited and oppressed sectors of the working class who are brought into Canada, but enjoy little to none of the rights accorded to citizens. This makes them ripe for abuse and helps to explain the popularity of the TFWP. If any temporary foreign worker makes a peep about their wages or working conditions in Canada, then they are very easily sent back to their home country. In 2009, ex-Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla’s family was alleged to have abused and threatened two Filipino caregivers, confiscating the caregivers’ passports and threatening to have them deported. Many temporary workers, especially those brought in to work in agriculture, are paid less than minimum wage and work in extremely hazardous conditions. In addition to protecting existing jobs, the labour movement needs to be defending these workers and ensuring that they have the same rights and protection as organized workers.
We are not opposed to foreign workers coming into Canada and establishing a life here. However, they should not be treated like second-class citizens, simply because of their passport; they should be paid the same and have the same basic rights as other Canadian workers. Most importantly, foreign workers should have the right and security of not being temporary residents, with the threat of deportation hanging over their heads if they try to exercise their rights at the workplace. If the capitalists are going to make a profit off of foreign workers’ labour, then they should absolutely have the right to stay.
Defending foreign workers and fighting for their rights is, ultimately, the only way that the labour movement can stop the bosses’ divide-and-rule tactics. The reality is that there are Canadians who are willing or able to do the jobs that temporary foreign workers are currently doing; the fact is that they are not willing to do it at the reduced pay that the ruling class is demanding. Foreign workers should not be expected to have to lower themselves to these wages, either. The capitalist class makes lots of noise about the merits of the market and of supply and demand; if this is the case, then surely they must meet the demand from labour and pay up!
If we are going to be successful in fighting the bosses’ attacks and austerity, it is imperative for the workers’ movement to be united and to overcome the divisions that the ruling class tries to foment. Program such as the TFWP are aimed at distracting workers’ attention from the real enemies — the bosses and their representatives in government — and re-directing it to fellow workers. It is imperative that the labour movement be at the forefront of fighting any attempts to divide the working class, and indeed, involve temporary workers in the resistance against low wages and precarious working conditions.
It is only under capitalism where fellow workers are pitted against one another. A socialist program — where the workweek could be reduced to 32-hours with no loss in pay, where a massive program of public works could be implemented, where the economy would function to provide for society and not quarterly profit reports — could provide the jobs and wages for all. There is more than enough wealth in society to meet the needs of all workers — organized, unorganized, and temporary.
The ferociousness of the capitalist austerity is growing, and the ruling class will use every trick in the book to ensure that they are victorious. However, as difficult as the task may seem, the bosses can be defeated. A small elite cannot stand forever against the mass that is the working class; it is now up to the labour movement to unite the millions of workers across Canada into one fighting movement that can defeat the austerity agenda.