Robyn Benson, PSAC

Cheap labour games: victories


The Royal Bank of Canada is doing a one-eighty on its offshore hiring policies. This follows hard on the heels of the Harper government announcing reforms to the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, which among other things does away with the right to pay imported workers 15% less than the median rate for Canadians—so the RBC may have been making a virtue out of necessity.

But, whatever the bank’s motives, it’s clear that a modest victory against exploiting cheap labour has been won. The government backtracked fast after a national outcry right across the political spectrum. And the labour movement was front and centre in that battle.

The United Steelworkers has played a prominent role, with its “Give Everyone A Chance” campaign. And they have also had a hand in another dispute, against a Chinese mining firm, HD Mining International, Ltd., which received the federal go-ahead to import most of its labour force from China to work in a BC mine. A qualification for the job? Fluency in Mandarin.

That seems rather blatant, but a federal court didn’t see things that way, and ruled last week against two other unions, the Construction and Specialized Workers’ Union, Local 1611, and International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 115, who were seeking judicial review of the federal decision to permit the offshore hiring.

An analysis of that decision is here: much depended, it seems, upon evidence that the judge decided to strike from the proceedings. The unions were challenging what appeared to be significant misrepresentation by HD with respect to the skills that their employees would need. Relevant documents were withheld by the BC government, and the federal government refused to force the company to produce the résumés of Canadians who had applied for jobs with them.

BC Federation of Labour President Jim Sinclair was blunt:

When the court determines, that despite the lack of full disclosure of documentation by the federal government, that the company followed the rules, the only conclusion fair-minded Canadians can make is that the deck has been stacked against Canadian workers by the very governments purporting to represent them.

If the company followed the rules, despite piles of evidence showing not only willing Canadians ready to take these jobs, and evidence the company and the government had no intention of training Canadians for years to come, then clearly the rules do not exist in the interest of Canadian workers.

…Whether it’s the Royal Bank, HD Mining, or Tim Horton’s, Canadians want to know that they will have access to these jobs. Canadian also support continued immigration to Canada, not the recipe for exploitation that the Temporary Foreign Worker program has become.

The cards were indeed stacked against them. But there was a victory even in defeat. This case gathered national attention as a classic example of abuse of the TFWP, and became tethered in the public mind with the RBC case. Some changes, and these couldn’t have come easily to it, were made by the Harper government in direct response.

Perhaps even more importantly, these cases put the workings of the TFWP—however the government tinkers with it—in the media spotlight. There is a new public awareness and a heightened concern as a result. Brother Sinclair rightly reminds us that the war against a national cheap labour strategy is very far from over, but Canadians have shown that it’s actually possible to push back and win. And that’s a lesson that won’t soon be unlearned.

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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on May 27, 2013 8:30 AM.

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