Right now, due to a years-long campaign led by migrants and supporters, there is a historic opportunity to win permanent resident status for migrants, including half a million undocumented people and their families. If successful, it would be one of the most significant expansions of rights for working people in recent memory.
At the same time, there is a small but loud current among labour economists and even unions that argues that increased immigration will cause downward pressure on wages in Canada. Some have argued that Canada’s target of 500,000 permanent residents by 2025 is simply a response to employer demands for cheap workers. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The first thing to understand is that, today, around half of the so-called ‘new’ immigrants are transitioning from temporary resident status to permanent resident status. They are already living and working in Canada, as refugee claimants, as temporary foreign workers, and as graduated students, but with fewer rights.
Increasing temporary migrants’ access to permanent resident status increases migrants’ ability to protect themselves and reduces the bosses’ ability to enact reprisals —and therefore increases the bargaining power of all workers. More permanent immigration means more workers with the power to actually walk away from bad jobs; and to negotiate for higher wages, not the other way around.
This is why the migrant justice movement has always called for permanent resident status for all. Unions and labour economists need to support the transition of temporary workers to permanent residency, because it increases labour mobility.
Part of the reason that some correlate migration and wages is because, on the face of it, it appears to make sense. The story goes that Canada is facing very low rates of unemployment and there are more jobs than there are workers. In a fantasy of a free market, where costs are governed exclusively by the neutral forces of supply and demand, it would seem reasonable that when the supply of labour is low, and demand is high, workers have greater negotiating power and should be able to increase their wages. Inversely, it makes sense that employers would organize for more workers (in the form of immigrants or migrants) to increase the supply of labour and keep wages low.
Such an analysis misses the central issue—power. Corporate profits are at historic highs right now, in part by keeping wages low despite low unemployment. Governments are freezing public sector wages. Increases in permanent immigration have nothing to do with it. Wages and working conditions improve when workers fight and win, not because of free market adjustments. The recent education worker strike in Ontario and by Molson Brewery workers in Quebec are just two of many examples.
"More permanent immigration means more workers with the power to actually walk away from bad jobs; and to negotiate for higher wages."
Some on the Left argue for a closure of the temporary foreign workers program (TFWP) —not overall immigration—insisting that employers use these unfree workers to artificially lower wages and worsen working conditions. Temporary foreign workers are on employer-restricted work permits—which tie their ability to stay in Canada to their work for a specific employer. This gives employers unchecked powers to exploit and abuse, using the threat of deportation to keep workers in bad jobs. While the impulse to oppose migrant worker exploitation is good, the “solutions” being shopped around are misguided; and connecting TFWP to overall wage decisions doesn’t hold water.
In 2022, Canada saw a modest increase of 38,320 TFWP workers as compared to three years earlier (pre-COVID-19), a 39 per cent growth. The growth is largely in agriculture and fisheries. As a percentage of Canada’s overall labour force of 20 million people, the increase in temporary foreign workers is about 0.2 per cent of the whole, and the industries where TFW presence is growing the fastest are ones in which there are few citizens or permanent resident workers to begin with. The presence of more temporary foreign workers, on such a small scale relative to the labour force, is not impacting employers’ wage decisions across the economy.
Shutting down the temporary foreign workers program will remove the only route for some of the lowest-wage workers from around the world to be able to come work in Canada and support their families. Migrant movements have always called for those workers to arrive with permanent resident status - which would require a restructuring of the current permanent streams; not a shutting down of the TFW program.
Another oft-repeated myth, even in progressive economist and labour circles, is that the housing market and services can’t keep up with increased immigration or refugees. That’s Quebec’s Premier Legault’s message, who said recently that “we’ve exceeded our capacity to welcome. We have problems with housing, places in schools, staff in hospitals.” The fact that progressives and right-wing xenophobic premiers are singing from the same hymnbook should give us all pause.
Premier Legault has no desire to decrease the number of new arrivals, in fact under his tenure Quebec has had one of the highest increases in the number of people on work permits anywhere in Canada. These people require the same amount of housing, and access to healthcare. The difference is that without permanent resident status, migrants may have to pay for the healthcare and they can be exploited more by bad bosses. Calls to oppose permanent immigration or refugees just results in an increase in the number of migrants with temporary status and fewer rights.
The employer narrative of a “labour shortage” is certainly a scam. What we face is a crisis of bad jobs and low wages. And many of the workers in these bad jobs facing low wages are migrants and immigrants. Our response must not be to fall into the age-old divisiveness and xenophobia that raises its head each time inflation and recessions emerge.
This is especially true right now when regularization and expansion of permanent resident status (and therefore equal right and labour mobility) is within reach and was promised by Prime Minister Trudeau in his December 2021 mandate letter. Many unions have already spoken up in support of permanent resident status for all.
Now is the time for unions, progressives, and working-class social movements to push the federal government to deliver on their promises for increased permanent immigration as a way to increase the power of all workers.