Visas for Temporary Workers are a Huge Issue…in Canada

 Calgary    Walking this morning, light snow was still sticking to the embankments along the curbside and puddles had a thin sheet ice, as spring was coming late to the northern Rockies.  Calgary continues to be an oil rich boomtown with population now surpassing a million people with low unemployment throughout the province of Alberta, the red state, Texas of Canada.   But, where the US is torn over the issues of visas for foreign workers, the Canadian debate on the issue has achieved a surprising consensus from the right to the left on jobs both high skilled and service sector, that puts a huge priority on protecting jobs for Canadians first and assuring that foreign work visas are receiving close to prevailing wages on all jobs and not displacing local workers.

The front pages of the very conservative national paper, National Post, had an extensive article on the national apology written “to all Canadians” by the CEO of the giant Canadian banking conglomerate, RBC, the Royal Bank of Canada, replying to accusations that RBC had “outsourced” 40 jobs overseas.  The apology was even more unusual in that the company may have not outsourced at all, but simply transferred the workers elsewhere in the company.  Regardless, the notion that a huge bank or business of any kind in the United States would apologize for outsourcing makes this remarkable in and of itself.

At the same time the national restaurant association was having to offer a weak defense of its need for foreign visa workers largely on the basis that unemployment is so low in Alberta that they cannot recruit enough Canadians to work in the lower paid service industry.  The deal on prevailing wages allegedly struck in the United States, as an immigration bill moves forward, is already somewhat in place in Canada, since foreign workers cannot be paid at a variance of any more than 15% of the prevailing wage for these jobs.  The notion that wages might have to be increased to attract more workers still seems unpopular with businesses in Canada just as it is everywhere in the world.

Politicians and business leaders are walking a tightrope now in Canada that may foretell the future someday in the United States, especially if some level of equity becomes a more consensual political principle in our politics.  Stephen Harper, the ultra-conservative, Bush-like, Canadian premier has been forced to weigh in on the side of job protection and even expresses concern over temporary worker visas being misused.  Canada already has a controversial farm labor, bracero program that ACORN Canada has correctly critiqued for its exploitation of remittances from these workers, and this is the very topic being debated in the United States as growers and the United Farm Workers try to strike a deal for a future immigration reform bill.

Labor in the United States may have finally reconciled its positions by moving past the longtime Achilles heel of the movement to now favor immigrants and their rights as well as be in favor of domestic first-hire preferences, living and prevailing wages and rights.  In Canada the farm labor and temporary visa program seem to have problems but this kind of reconciliation by all parties seems to make these issues resolvable rather than divisive wedge issues as they have been in the United States for decades.

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