Temporary workers in Canada face more uncertainty than ever

Cynthia Macdonald

The word "temporary" always been familiar to Canadian immigrants.

Temporary loneliness, until they found community and reunited with family; temporary poverty, until hard work paid off and their children started to reap the dividends; and temporary alienation, until their status was assured, giving them the right to plant roots in a country known for its welcoming ways.

However, as researchers at UTSC are making clear, there is no longer anything remotely temporary about loneliness, poverty and alienation for the huge number of foreign-born residents of Canada whose legal status is currently deemed “precarious.”

This includes hundreds of thousands of people in Toronto who want, but cannot attain, citizenship or even permanent resident status. Frustrated by bureaucratic backlogs and changing government rules, they exist in a state of chronic limbo, working odd jobs while living in constant fear of deportation. Most importantly, says UTSC Sociology Chair Patricia Landolt, “access to social, economic and political rights is profoundly uncertain.”

Health care, education and fair wages are just some of the entitlements that elude these Canadians-in-waiting, sometimes for decades. Landolt says that’s because in the past 10 years, there’s been a shift in the way Canada and its governments understand immigration. “At one point about 80 per cent of [undocumented workers] were on a track to permanent residency and citizenship, but that category is increasingly shrinking.”

In its place? Programs for temporary workers and students who have limited access to language instruction, social supports and “all the other things that used to be in place to help immigrants get up to speed in joining Canadian society. That system has been quietly eroded,” Landolt says.

Last year, media reports about the Temporary Foreign Worker program revealed that many workers were suffering at the hands of their employers, working overtime with no pay and living in crowded, dirty conditions. Since then, the federal government has promised to overhaul the system by placing skilled immigrants on a fast track to permanent status by matching them with interested employers before they even arrive.

In a study with York University researcher Luin Goldring, Landolt found that immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean do jump into the labour market quickly, but then get stuck. They spend years incurring debt and legal feels, and being injured on the job and exploited. “This has a significant impact on their outlook on life and their ability to integrate into Canadian society,” she says.

Landolt’s most recent study examines the ways in which public schools interact with students who come from precarious-status families. Even though some fall through the cracks for years, she says, people still get deported on a regular basis. “There is an agreement that the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) can only come into schools if there’s a security risk. In spite of this, they wait outside of schools, picking kids up to use them as bait for their parents. It’s really menacing. They do it all the time.”

As an essential part of Canada’s historical fabric, immigration has been well-studied at universities here. Despite a data vacuum caused by, among other things, the disappearance of the mandatory long-form census, researchers have a fairly good handle on where migrants come from and why they leave their homelands. But few have taken a close look at the minefields that await migrants in the modern-day workplace—until now.

“There’s an invisibility around this issue in the public discourse,” says Paloma Villegas, a lecturer in UTSC’s Sociology Department. “And it’s an area that’s been relatively understudied. People like Patricia have been at the forefront of trying to get us to think about precarious legal status in a complicated way.”

Research in this area can also translate into effective community outreach. Last fall, Villegas started teaching a new course called Immigrant Scarborough. “We partnered with the Toronto East Quadrant Local Immigration Partnership, who were interested in having our students look at what services were available to populations they see as underserved,” she says.

UTSC students researched several such communities and services considered essential, including public transportation—a perennial concern for many Scarborough residents. They found that unique services have arisen here too, such as a health clinic that serves undocumented residents and new permanent residents left hanging by OHIP’s mandatory three-month wait.

“It isn’t just the students’ findings that were important,” says Villegas. “I also think UTSC is doing a really great job of creating relationships with partners in Scarborough and also getting students thinking about issues that affect the community. When they can participate in the research, it really brings home a lot of the issues we discuss.”

With some 57 per cent of its population born outside Canada, Scarborough is a traditional magnet for immigrants. And many of those with precarious status come from the Americas.

Since the mid-1960s, workers from Latin America and the Caribbean have arrived in Canada to work under the auspices of government programs devoted to seasonal agricultural labour or, at least until the 1990s, live-in caregiving. Since then, they have diversified and can be found in many other areas of the labour market—from the Alberta oilsands to the cash registers at Tim Hortons outlets across the country.

They can also be found in construction, the focus of Michelle Buckley’s research. Buckley, an assistant professor in UTSC’s Department of Human Geography, is in the early stages of a study examining how construction workers help build cities. “Toronto has a very sophisticated construction sector that requires a huge amount of skilled labour,” she says. With numerous projects underway, including venues for the Pan Am and Parapan American Games, demand for workers (many of whom traditionally come from abroad) is high. Many of these workers have been “deskilled,” that is, forced to take construction jobs instead of the white-collar work for which they were trained, such as architecture, journalism or teaching.

“At the same time,” says Buckley, “we’ve found others saying they’ve been able to get jobs that have given them new skills and enabled them to move into other areas of the trades. They’ve been pleased with what they’ve been able to learn on the job.”

It’s worth looking at who has a happy experience and who doesn’t, Buckley says. Early indications appear to show white, English-speaking foreigners are far more likely to prosper in Canada.

Buckley says that following the economic crisis in Ireland several years ago, for example, many Irish men and women came here to work in construction. Jason Kenney, then the federal immigration minister, even appeared on late-night talk shows in Ireland to promote Canada as a destination for skilled workers in this sector—those likely to benefit from the new Express Entry system, offering a fast track to citizenship.

By contrast, “Latin American workers are well-represented in some of the most vulnerable areas of the trades,” including demolition and asbestos removal, says Buckley. That vulnerability was witnessed most clearly last summer, “when the [Ontario] Ministry of Transportation teamed up with the CBSA and raided vehicles leaving day labour and work sites in the north of Toronto. At least 21 people were deported.”

Public outcry in response to this raid led the Ontario Ministry of Transportation to officially cut ties with the CBSA. Meanwhile, the City of Toronto recently approved its Sanctuary City policy, designed to let undocumented residents—who routinely pay HST and property taxes via rent—access to public services without fear of being deported. The policy has yet to be officially implemented.

The number of temporary insecure workers is increasing everywhere, of course. Whether born here or not, they make economic sense to employers who don’t want to offer job security or pay benefits. But native-born citizens are in a much better position to fight back against ills like discrimination, sexual harassment and wage theft than foreign-born workers, who risk losing their jobs and their ability to stay in the country if they stand up for their rights.

“Even if you’re undocumented, you have rights,” says Buckley. “So we want to make workers aware of those. Groups like Migrant Workers’ Alliance for Change are connected to frontline settlement staff and to other groups. They also put pressure on the government to be transparent in their actions.”

Since its year in the media spotlight, the federal government says employers are no longer applying to the Temporary Foreign Workers program in such high numbers. But the “modernization” of its other longtime programs still flies under the radar. Rules governing live-in caregivers, for example, are being severely tightened, casting these workers into uncertainty. Critics also complain there is still little federal accountability for agricultural workers. And in 2011, the federal government instituted a tip line to expose undocumented immigrants. In 2012, it also restricted health benefits and other rights for refugee claimants.

“A commitment to humanitarian concerns is irrelevant now,” says Landolt. “And if your boss is mistreating you? You don’t like it, you can go home.”

Because their subjects live with daily suspicion and fear, researchers such as Landolt, Buckley and Villegas often find it hard to document the undocumented. “It’s a fragmented community, and many people are in hiding,” says Landolt. For her schools project, she wants to interview non-status residents, “but it’s more likely that people will want to talk once they’ve been regularized.” Buckley agrees. “I think workers may be reluctant to talk about their experience. But understanding it is an important part of the research.”

Lack of government data affects the work these UTSC researchers do, too. “In the United States, they’ve figured out a way to count undocumented people—with 13 million of them, they had to do it,” says Landolt.

It isn’t just the threat of exile that worries undocumented foreign workers. Xenophobia leads some Canadians to believe jobs are being taken away from citizens—despite the fact that the jobs in question aren’t necessarily desirable.

It’s been more than a century since Canada began importing Chinese workers to build its railroads. Such workers were then discouraged from staying here by an onerous head tax imposed on them. That tax is now considered one of the most shameful episodes in our nation’s history, and the federal government has formally apologized for it.

But when workers have overtime wages withheld, lack sufficient protection from illness and injury, and are illegally forced by employers to pay bogus “recruitment” fees, we have to ask if more needs to change.

Once, immigrants to Canada could realistically dream that hard work would lead to home ownership or good educations for their children. For many, that isn’t the case anymore. “Secure status leads to the kind of hopeful story we’re very used to hearing,” says Landolt. “But there’s also this other story—of debt, of wage theft, of going through so much just trying to get through all these hoops. It’s a different world now.”