RBC Scandal Reveals an Economy Deeply Dependent on Migrant Labour

Getting beyond the “Canadian jobs” debate

by Steve da Silva

RBC_Place_Ville-MarieThe moral backlash that Canada’s largest and most profitable bank, RBC, was met with when news broke earlier this month that they were using foreign workers to replace dozens of their IT staff has developed into a wider scandal that is engulfing virtually all of corporate Canada and all of Canada’s political parties.

It is no secret that the Temporary Foreign Worker Program has been growing rapidly, tripling in a decade to more than 338,000 workers by the end of 2012.  As has been pointed out, this is a larger workforce than that of Canada’s smaller provinces.

The moral outrage sparked by the outsourcing of 45 of RBC’s IT staff reflects a sense of indignation amongst Canadians – as if a line had been crossed.  Many seem to be reflecting a feeling that they’ve been lied to, and were under the impression that the Temporary Foreign Worker Program had been limited to jobs like being caregivers or tomato pickers (which are actually part of separate programs, the Live-In Caregiver Program and the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program), jobs that “Canadians don’t want” or in industries facing only temporary labour or skills shortages.  After all, as the government website for the program reads, “The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) allows Canadian employers to hire foreign nationals to fill temporary labour and skill shortages when qualified Canadian citizens or permanent residents are not available.”

As an employer, here is how you make a “Canadian” job suitable for a migrant worker: Drive wages down to rock bottom, break or block union formation, and minimize safety regulations.  Then no one takes your job. But don’t worry! The TFWP will help you! Apply for a Labour Market Opinion from the Human Resources and Skills Development Canada saying that you couldn’t find enough workers in the required fourteen day advertising period, and bang! Not only do you have a cheap labour supply, but you have workers that are stuck with you as an employer, workers who can’t unionize, and who you can pay 15% less than the minimum wage.  This trend is sweeping across the economy.

Temporary foreign workers are working in all sectors of the economy.  In the weeks following the news, one source reported that eighteen of Canada’s largest fifty employers are on the list of users of the TFWP, including: Shaw, Sun Life, RIM, Maple Leaf, Air Canada, Canadian Tire, Financière Manuvie, Rona, Rogers, Sears, BMO, Bell, Thomson Reuters, Bombardier, Scotiabank, TD Canada Trust, Loblaws.  Other notable employers of TFWs include Lulu Lemon, Hudson’s Bay Company, Bank of Canada, Shoppers Drug Mart, Walmart, Telus, Enbridge, Sobeys, CN Rail, Porter, Tim Hortons, SNC Lavalin, CP Rail, McDonald’s, Suncor, and Talisman Energy.  The total number of employers now using TFWs is 33,000.  Other noteworthy employers on the list include the Bank of Canada, CBC, and the Girl Guides. With an official joblessness level sitting at 1.4 million people, it should become clear where this outpouring of indignation comes from.

Not only has the scandal spread to virtually all of corporate Canada, it has spread to all of Canada’s political parties too. After some righteous posturing from the Conservatives pretending as if they weren’t aware of such uses of the program and some vague promises about immediate reforms, they have now deflected criticism by revealing active support for the program by the opposition parties.  The Conservatives released this past week a series of personal letters written by Liberal and NDP MPs – including Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, NDP Status of Women Critic Niki Ashton, and NDP Foreign Affairs Critic Paul Dewar – making personal appeals for the use of temporary foreign workers in their ridings.

So all political parties have more or less supported the Program, and virtually all sectors of economy are using temporary foreign workers.  Yet the moral backlash remains centered not on the super-exploitative and often abusive and dangerous conditions that temporary foreign workers have endured for decades, but rather on the concern that the TFWP has begun to cut into “Canadian jobs” and that it has far surpassed the mandate of the program to fill short-term labour or skills shortages.  This is a line of thinking that is being actively encouraged by the media, with what seems like ‘two sides’ to the debate arguing over whether this or that job can or should be filled by citizens.  And to the extent that this moral backlash in the media reflects popular sentiments of anxieties over people’s jobs and livelihoods, it is understandable.  Rising consumer and student debts with fewer job prospects and employment insecurity is a reasonable basis for anxiety.  But we can’t let those who are responsible for generating these social insecurities – all levels of government and the businesses that get them elected – leverage them for their own purposes.

The moment we workers – those of us who rely on our labour to survive, who make others rich by our work – buy into this logic of there being certain jobs that are suitable for “Canadians” and certain jobs suitable to foreign workers, we’ve already lost the battle. We’ve lost because we’ve already accepted that a divided working-class is acceptable, divisions which are only hardened by differing immigration statuses and racial lines.

But we don’t have to accept these divisions. Workers looking for real alternatives to capitalism and a way to resist capitalist “austerity” shouldn’t get pulled into this debate of where we draw around which jobs are okay for the super-exploitation of foreign workers. The capitalists and their governments will go on creating whatever hiring practices and wage systems are necessary, no matter how exploitative, to make their profits and “compete” in the global capitalist economy.

In any case, the job of workers is to organize against these capitalists.  Just as immigrant workers did in militant and courageous ways in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries, so too we will and must today. Hopefully today, with greater unity and support from workers with citizenship and status.

As the May 1st Movement and its allies have called for this coming May Day, we need a Solidarity City – a city of organizations and alliances united against capitalist austerity, imperialism and colonialism, and united through a network of people’s power in this city and far beyond it that is actually capable of bringing forth a new economy and a new society.