Canada has been applauded for its advanced approach to immigration, specifically migrant worker programs in the past, but recent surveying of these policies reveals significant flaws in the access to rights for these workers. This article analyzes Canadian immigration policies that focus on lower-class migration, and their potential to offer rights and citizenship to people who contribute necessary labour to the Canadian economy. The current approach to economic migration is overly reliant on the neoliberal agenda and dehumanizes migrant workers through withholding rights, such as access to healthcare, mobility rights, and access to citizenship.
The Neoliberal agenda being pursued in Canada has played a significant role in disadvantaging migrant workers and their ability to qualify as economic immigrants. The neoliberal agenda is “to create and maintain institutional frameworks and practices that support ‘individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills’” thus minimizing the role of the state in protecting the most vulnerable populations. Immigrant workers in the field of seasonal agricultural work and caregiving are exploited, marginalized, and perpetually precarious as these programs offer minimal pathways to permanent residence, and thus access to the rights afforded to all Canadian citizens. For caregivers, residing in their place of work means that they unquestionably face long hours without proper breaks because they are considered to be perpetually on call. For agricultural workers, studies have shown that both working and living conditions are not equal to those of domestic workers and many employers fail to meet the already subpar standards. Both the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) and the Live-In Caregiver Program (LCP) were established in response to labour shortages in the respective industries as domestic workers entering the industries were declining.
The neoliberal agenda in Canada has played a significant role in disadvantaging migrant workers despite being brought to the country with economic motivations. Factors in other countries that disadvantage certain groups of people, particularly women, are reinforced by Canadian immigration policies such as access to education, and rights to participate in the workforce. The provisions in Canadian immigration policies that prioritize an applicant with an education put those that do not have the ability to gain an education at a disadvantage. One’s right to remain in Canada is not securely held and dependent on a multitude of variables. Citizenship and immigration are very hierarchical both in Canada and within the global system. These concepts are also responsible for determining the rights one has access to, and who is responsible for the provision of such rights. Equality is very much not a concept that frames Canada’s approach to immigration.
Canada has adopted an openly discriminative immigration policy, known as the points-based system. Since 1967, Canada has required independent immigration applicants to be subjected to a prejudiced classification system that judges them based on their education, skills, work experience, language, and age; and selects those that will best fill the gaps in the Canadian labour market. The purpose of this system was to remove racism and sexism from Canadian immigration policy. However, there still remains an element of sexism in immigration policy because it is a well-known fact that women and girls in some societies are prohibited from working and/or gaining an education. Patriarchal societies disadvantage women from qualifying as economic immigrants in Canada. Ultimately, the Canadian immigration policy imports paternalism into Canada by failing to accommodate for the inability of women in paternalistic societies to qualify as economic immigrants. Consequently, this causes many women to have limited options for migration into Canada. Many women are forced to apply either through the spousal sponsorship program or the Live-in caregiver program. Both programs are significantly flawed and leave women in a subordinate position to either a male immigrant or to their employer.
The Government of Canada’s immigration policies imports paternalistic ways of life into Canada. Scholars have argued that the irony of employability exists, in which highly qualified women, specifically refugees will always have to start at the bottom of the job market. This argument claims that women, regardless of their skills and abilities, will always be forced to start with low-wage, low-benefit jobs. Therefore, using the points-based system to select applicants based on their employability is to be considered a paradox. Immigrant women are highly concentrated in low-skilled factory jobs regardless of the qualifications that permitted them into Canada as economic immigrants. Furthermore, they are forced to compete in the gendered Canadian job market where there is a limited selection of jobs for women in Canada, as well as a lower pay scale.
Canada’s immigration policies operate in a complete vacuum, isolated from the benefits migrant workers provide in the private sphere. The homecare skills and efforts that women provide while a family adjusts to their new lives are not only invisible but also unrecognized in economic terms by the Canadian immigration system. This argument is also replicated with regard to migrant workers and the agricultural industry. It is clear that the state disregarded the value of migrant workers in the domestic economy and prioritized economic contributions to Canadian society. The points-based system in Canada disadvantages women with children because they are considered to face additional barriers to economic self-sufficiency and integration into Canadian society. Migrant agricultural workers are expected to spend upwards of eight months per year away from their families and children with minimal prospects of obtaining citizenship for their entire family.
Institutional arrangements in Canada allow for many immigrants to fall into a situation of precarious immigration status. Precarious immigration status means that one’s position or right to remain within Canada is not securely held in the legal realm. There are multiple pathways to non-citizenship and illegality in Canada. Any immigrant lacking work authorization or the right to remain permanently in the country faces an unstable immigration status. Furthermore, an immigrant who is forced to depend on a third party, such as a spouse or employer, for their right to remain in the country and access social citizenship rights like public education and public health, also faces precarious immigration status.
Canada’s federalism creates some gap in the access to healthcare for immigrants. The federal government has jurisdiction over immigration while the provincial governments have jurisdiction over healthcare. Some provinces extend their public health to sponsored family members, long-term temporary foreign workers, and LCP workers, while some provinces have implemented a three-month delay for access to healthcare. Temporary workers, foreign students, visitors, and undocumented migrants are excluded entirely. Essentially, any migrant who faces a more precarious immigration situation has increasingly less access to healthcare.
Further, sponsored immigrants are forced to maintain their employment to prevent deportation. Immigrants typically have reduced negotiating power with their employer due to their reliance on the employer for their right to remain in the country. For immigrants who fall ill from work, they are often not able to recover because they are so strictly tied to the scenarios that cause them to be ill in the first place. Examples of these conditions include the unsafe use of pesticides, inadequate living conditions, heat exhaustion, overworking, and insufficient nutrition. Concurrently, this applies to the domestic violence risk of the spousal sponsorship program. Many victims of intimate partner violence do not report the incidents and/or seek medical treatment for the injuries they sustain from abuse as they fear that they will be removed from the situation that maintains their right to remain in the country.
Migrant workers are not purely economic inputs and are deserving of greater access to rights and social services while in the host country.
Moving Forward? Starting Over?
Global Social policy is becoming one of the leading disciplines for advancing the rights of marginalized groups within non-state organizations and other major policy advocates. Within this discipline, there are two dimensions that largely frame the literature: (1) the extent to which global structures and actors shape the development of social policies within a country; and (2) the “modes and mechanisms of redistribution and regulation across borders, as well as the articulation, advocacy, and advancement of global social rights”. The purpose of global social policy is to analyze the complex and changing relations caused by the forces of globalization and how modes of government and concepts of citizenship are changing as a result of this.
One of the main constructions of global social policy is the concept of a social protection floor. A social protection floor refers to “a comprehensive national protection system compromising universal access to essential services such as health, education, housing, water and sanitation, and other services, nationally defined, and social transfers in cash or kind to ensure income security, food security, adequate nutrition and access to essential services”. A social protection floor is considered to be the main ingredient in reducing poverty and inequality. Social protection floors can be implemented by a national government to protect people within their country, and they can be implemented in an international institution to establish minimum social protections across all signatory countries. What is important to note is that the idea of a social protection floor is intended to apply to all persons within the country, therefore including tourists, migrant workers, and those with precarious citizenship status. The potential with a social protection floor is virtually endless. For example, the protections could be extended to include rights to education, higher standards of health, and participation in public affairs. The purpose of a social protection floor is to assist states in fulfilling their obligations to international law and their people and to ensure universal coverage of rights. This dialogue is intended to take the analysis of social protection beyond the written perceptions of such and into the practical applications of the regime. It is important to ensure that rights are not only applied evenly, but they are also accessed evenly with no barriers to accessibility.
A restructuring of Canada’s approach to immigration should undoubtedly move from focusing on the economic contributions of the migrant worker, as per the neoliberal agenda, and towards a more individualistic approach. A rehumanizing process would be built around the dignity of the worker and recognize the responsibility of the government in constraining the movements of human beings within the country. Migrant workers are not purely economic inputs and are deserving of greater access to rights and social services while in the host country. Industrialized economies, such as Canada, have become structurally dependent on migrant labour, yet modern approaches to citizenship, and the rights associated with that attainment, do not reflect the economic contributions made by migrant workers. Citizenship is often considered a strategic concept to obtain legal status and cultural meaning, it contributes to the inferiority of migrant workers, making them vulnerable and exploitable. Canada should have higher expectations and set a better example for the rest of the world with regard to the institutional status of migrant workers.
The current approach to economic migration in Canada is overly reliant on policies based on neoliberal principles. SAWP and the Caregiver programs were developed in response to labour shortages in the respective industries. Both programs are fraught with human rights abuses, labour abuses, and violations of mobility rights. There have been some advancements in the caregiver industry that grant migrant workers greater rights, such as the abolishment of the “live-in” requirement, yet similar requirements remain in the seasonal agricultural worker program. The neoliberal agenda in Canada has played a significant role in disadvantaging migrant workers by placing the emphasis on the economic contributions of the program and its ability to meet the needs of the domestic economy. Little attention has been given to the experiences and needs of the individual providing labour in these programs. A social protection floor has been presented as a means for encouraging governments to act on the injustices faced by migrant workers within their territory. These programs need to move from focusing on the economic contributions made by the worker and towards an individualistic approach that respects the dignity of the person.
Keely L Chambers is a recent graduate from Balsillie School of International Affairs at Wilfrid Laurier with a Master’s of International Public Policy with specializations in environmental policy and international trade. Her research interests also expand into sustainable energy, Indigenous affairs, and migration.
Banner image by John Salvino, courtesy of Unsplash.