Victim or menace: Notes on the TFWP and political agency

The louder the debate about temporary foreign workers grows, the more it seems temporary foreign workers, especially those from the global South performing low-wage labour, are left in the din on the sidelines. While there have been stories about exploitation on the job and beyond, much of the focus is on Canadian resident workers, business owners and the Program itself as an object of “abuse”.

When migrant workers are present, they are often placed at two opposing end-points on a spectrum of agency. At times, they are described as helpless victims at the exploitative whim of businesses and government regulations. Other times, however, they are presented as taking away “Canadian” jobs, actively affecting the labour market outcomes of resident workers.

There is a contradiction between representations that depict either an abject passivity or a kind of near malice – sometimes even simultaneously. In start making sense of this, I was struck by a comment Jason Foster made in last week’s podcast interview on the TFWP:

It’s important to…not make temporary foreign workers themselves passive victims in the picture. These are men and women who are making active choices for themselves…what we can argue are rational choices for themselves.

For migrant workers, these choices start at home and are indeed often driven by economic calculation. Those able to successfully migrate for work – often at great personal and financial cost – enter work relationships that act to constrain the agency, creativity and resilience that got them into these relationships.

While migrant workers are able to actively circumvent the individual constraints imposed on them in their home countries by an international division of labour via temporary migration, when these workers leave their home countries, they are confronted with new sets of constraints. Upon arriving in Canada, they face a domestic division of labour in which they occupy some of the lowest positions and are expected to return home. Decades of economic liberalization that have freed capital flows have at the same time maintained border controls to enable efficient labour discipline and guest worker programs are an important aspect.

A more realistic picture of the dual nature of the agency available to migrant workers comes straight from the horse’s mouth. As can be the case, a single candid conversation can reveal much more than a weeks’ worth of media coverage. During a recent conference call with franchise owners obtained by the CBC, McDonald’s Canada CEO John Betts says a lot about his relationship with government and the optics of the TFWP, but also has some words about migrant workers:

These poor, maligned employees are who they are. Yes, they are disenfranchised; some of them don’t work for us anymore…

The first part of this statement casts temporary foreign workers in the familiar role of victims. The last bit, however, indicates something else: the lack of franchise is not total and has to be actively maintained. Workers who speak out – a not so infrequent occurrence that further undermines the stereotype of the meek migrant – are let go or deported. Being disenfranchised is not a state, it is an ongoing process.

A very real agency brings migrant workers to Canada – one that requires resilience of all sorts, from, frequently, emotional resilience of being separated from family to, even more frequently, physical resilience of performing difficult and dangerous work. Once here, this agency is diverted from the political sphere, away from an where it that could undermine economic constraints and bridge faults in the division of labour. Disenfranchised precarity is ensured by both a lack of political rights stemming from permanent residency and curtailed access (formal or in practice) to the full range of benefits afforded by the welfare state.

Most generally, migrant labour is a powerful force constrained by a system that prioritizes the free movement of goods over that of people. In a commentary on (what else?) Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Suresh Naidu writes that open borders are a potential political aim on the level of Piketty’s global wealth tax – equally idealistic…and unrealistic. While this may be, Naidu suggests that,

These restless and young populations of the developing world might catalyze a new set of political energies, just as socialist movements of the Gilded Age were powered by immigrant workers.

As low-wage employers and friendly governments well know, franchise needs to be actively suppressed, but there are times when it can burst through. The current movements led by low-wage workers and undocumented workers in the US are an example.

Migrant workers under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program face very real constraints – including being tied to a single employer, being subject to restrictions on where to live and difficulty in accessing social safety nets – that leave them at once more precarious than the average domestic low-wage worker but more integrated than undocumented workers. These work to curtail their voices and their political agency, enabling crass stereotypes of victims or menaces.

Migrant workers and their organizations have simple and practical short-term demands: “open work permits, strengthened anti-reprisal measures, proactive enforcement of workplace rights.” These reforms increase political agency in the labour market and can open the path to immigration reform: permanent status for both future workers and those already here. These steps could enable the voices and political energies of migrant workers. For now, they are silenced in the debate because of a complex agency that goes beyond stereotypes and threatens the status quo with its potential for resilience and creativity.

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