Here’s an interesting subject for industrial relations students. You might have seen recent stories about how a Chinese/Canadian coal mining consortium was granted permission by the Federal government to bring in about 200 Chinese miners to fill jobs at a coal mine in B.C. Here is a Vancouver Sun piece. The company apparently plans to seek allowance to bring in thousands more Chinese workers in the coming years. Because unions found out about the Chinese miners and complained that actually Canadians are pretty good at coal mining and could do this work, the government has now announced it will review the program and the coal miners situation.
I’m not going to run through all of the specifics of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. I’m not an expert on how the program works in practice. However, in a nutshell, it is a program that allows Canadian employers to receive permission from the federal government to bring in foreign workers to fill jobs in Canada when the jobs have been advertised and qualified Canadians do not fill the jobs.
The mining company must have put ads in papers and jobs boards for the positions, and they claim no candidates applied. I can’t find a copy of the ads. The Feds agreed that there are no Canadians willing or able to do the job at the posted rate, so it granted 201 permits for ‘temporary’ Chinese workers. A strange twist in the B.C. coal mine case is that the job ad apparently listed knowledge of Mandarin. That requirement would preference employees of Chinese origin over all other ethnicities and therefore, in my opinion, would violate the Ontario Human Rights Code (Section 23(1)) rules prohibiting listing of qualifications in a job ad that discriminate indirectly. I’m not as familiar with B.C. human rights jurisprudence. What do you think my B.C. friends: Can an employer give preference in a mining job to people who speak Chinese? It would be odd indeed if a discriminatory job qualification satisfied the TFWP approval guidelines.
The TFWP program is controversial for a number of reasons. But I want to focus on one aspect of it that is relevant to our industrial relations course. This program has flourished under the Federal Conservative Party, the party that is most aligned with the Neoliberal Perspective we discuss in class. That perspective promotes reliance upon ‘market forces’ to fix wages and working conditions. This leads them to be suspicious of government regulation of work, since regulation is said to interfere with the market forces. Curiously though, the TFWP is an example of government intervention in markets designed to help employers lower their training and labour costs. The Conservatives are fine with this sort of state intervention in labour markets.
The TFWP requires the employer to post jobs for a period of time to attract Canadian workers. The posting must include: a “wage range (i.e. an accurate range of wages being offered to Canadians and permanent residents). The wage range must always include the prevailing wage for the position”. The ‘prevailing wage’ is calculated by using a government calculator called a Wages and Outlook Report . I tried ‘Coal Miner’ in the Okanagan-Thompson area because no rate is listed for Northern B.C., and got this:
Hourly Wage Rates: Low End: $24 Median: $30.80 High End: $36
[For fun, I also tried University Professor for the Toronto area and was told this:Hourly Wage Rates: Low End: $18.34 Median: $43.27 High: $69.71]
So, I assume that a coal mine in this geographic area would need to list a range that included $30.80 per hour. But what if no miner wants to work in that region for the median wage rate? As I understand the Model, the employer would not then be required to offer the High End of the range, or to go above that. Rather, if no people step forward at the posted rate that the employer wants to offer, the government will then allow the employer to go abroad to find workers who will work for that rate.
But here’s a question: If an employer can’t attract workers at a wage rate within the median range’, then doesn’t neoliberal labour market theory simply require the employer to raise the offering price? That is how the price of labour ‘clears’, how supply will eventually meet the demand for coal miners. I was taught that is how labour markets operate. If you offer a high enough wage rate, you will no doubt begin to attract coal miners from across Canada. If the employer can’t find qualified workers, then wouldn’t a neoclassical model require the employer to provide training in order to attract workers (or to find a solution with the government to assist in training workers)? These are production costs that companies are usually expected to absorb in a market system.
The TFWP program rejects these core market-based principles by permitting Canadian employers to bypass Canadian labour market forces and tap into a pool of foreign workers who come to Canada with fewer legal rights. These workers usually don’t speak English, so its hard for them to learn their legal rights, and they can be sent back to their country at any time if their employer doesn’t want them any longer. It is a system designed to permit Canadian employers to benefit from vulnerable foreign workers in order to avoid market forces. If we opened up our borders to foreign workers, that would be one thing. But we don’t. The Conservatives allow foreign workers to come in under a system of vulnerability, without full citizen rights, in order to keep wage rates below the market clearing rate.
This is good news for the mines and coffee shops across Canada using the foreign workers. However, if you are an adherent to the gospel of ‘free markets’ and limited state intervention, then how can you also support the TFWP program?
What do you think? Is the Foreign Temporary Worker Program inconsistent with Neoliberal economic teachings?
Should Canadian employers be required to pay that rate required to attract workers to remote areas of Canada, even if that rate is higher than the employer would like to pay?
Should employers be required to train Canadian workers if there is a skills shortage, or should they be able to look abroad for foreign workers who will need less training?