News broke last week that RBC, one of Canada’s largest financial institutions, was outsourcing IT systems support for RBC Investor Services to iGate, whose primary operations are in India. Of the 50 employees currently working in the department, 45 will be laid off. Some iGate employees, brought to Canada under the Conservative government’s expanded “Temporary Foreign Worker Program,” are already doing work in their department. The allegations have put the Canadian government on the defensive about the program, which Prime Minister Stephen Harper insists will undergo reforms.
While the story is a punch in the stomach for unemployed and underemployed workers in Canada, similarly disturbing is the xenophobic undercurrent detected on social media and among some sources quoted by the media. In particular, the word “foreigner” crops up again and again, creating a false dichotomy between “Canadian” and “foreign” workers. This rhetoric obscures Canada’s colonial history (i.e. all workers in Canada are “foreign” except indigenous people). It also pits workers against each other when the real problem is a program that drives down wages and incentivizes the exploitation of both migrant workers and those who were already working in Canada.
Economic turbulence and austerity provide fuel for racism, creating generalized worker angst that often translates into a story of migrant workers “stealing” jobs that are “rightfully Canadian.” The impact goes beyond temporary foreign worker programs: research has shown that high unemployment correlates with heightened opposition to affirmative action programs. Instead of regarding our job competitors as the enemy, workers would do well to abide by the maxim of “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”
A brief look at the case reveals that iGate employees who come to Canada through the temporary foreign worker program are subject to terrible restrictions. Despite these migrant workers’ legal right to apply for permanent residency after one year of employment in Canada, iGate will force the ones who do so (or their family members) to pay the company approximately $6,000 CAD. Similar penalties apply if the worker accepts a job offer from another Canadian employer while in Canada. While the iGate employees’ situations differ from the RBC employees put out of work, the big picture doesn’t look especially rosy for workers on either side of this coin.
As some have pointed out, many Canadians initially immigrated for temporary work; we are “a nation of temps who stuck around.” An influx of “foreigners” is not the problem that we need to address in the wake of the RBC scandal. Instead, let’s focus on the temporary foreign worker program’s lower valuation of migrant labour, which discourages employers from making real effort to find candidates already in Canada, and drives down wages for everyone. Let’s focus on the barriers the program creates to prevent migrant workers from investing themselves in Canada’s future as permanent residents and citizens.
Steph Guthrie is the moderator of the MediaTech Commons. She’s an internet animator and a full-time feminist. You can join her at the MediaTech Commons by signing up here. Already a member? Log in here.