One response to the risk that PNPs, by design, exacerbate or perpetuate insecurities for temporary foreign workers is that third parties such as organized labour and municipal governments, when they participate, can be key actors in helping to counter-balance employer power. These actors may also contribute to service provision for workers during the nominee process and after they become permanent residents. This section explores organized labour’s role in Manitoba, where unions have been particularly active, and discusses some of the main advantages and disadvantages of this approach to regulating and supplementing the PNPs.
Beginning in the early stages of the MPNP, organized labour has played a prominent role in negotiating collective agreements that protect foreign workers and put positive pressure on employers to nominate workers for permanent residency. The labour movement in Manitoba has also been active in developing and delivering settlement services and support, including language training and housing provision. In particular, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) in Manitoba has been a driving force in creating a nominee program that afford workers’ significant protections – at least in unionized workplaces.
One of the main developments being pioneered by UFCW in Manitoba is a scheme of collective agreement provisions that directly addresses some of the insecurities confronting temporary foreign workers and provincial nominees. To date, collective agreements with these provisions have been negotiated with Maple Leaf Foods in the city of Brandon and with Springhill Farms in the town of Neepowa.[cx] These agreements address the first three PNP design failures discussed in Part IV. First, they partially prevent employers from using nominations as levers of control over individual workers, by requiring that the employers will process all work permit renewals and forms for permanent residency applications in a timely manner.[cxi] While this particular provision appears limited on its face, it is arguably of major importance to foreign workers. By including these nomination processes in collective agreements and therefore making them eligible to grievance and arbitration procedures, employers are presented with incentives to avoid abuses and foreign workers are provided with better access to institutional safeguards. Additional provisions provide for expedited arbitration hearings in the case of a foreign worker’s termination – also a key point of vulnerability for these workers – and require employers to continue processing all necessary paperwork for the worker to remain in Canada.[cxii] These provisions go some way toward preventing employers from avoiding their obligations and from applying undue pressure to workers. Second, the agreements themselves require that the text of collective agreement to be translated into languages where there is a critical mass of native speakers employed, and require the employer to provide translators when required. Since language can often pose a major barrier to workers’ access to information about their rights and about the details of nominee program eligibility requirements, these services can help to address some of the uncertainty created by nominee application processes. Third, basic language support provisions have provided a jumping-off point for the UFCW to become an active services provider in other areas outside of the collective agreement, including language training and housing settlement support. Overall, these developments likely work to cultivate norms related to shared-understanding and mutual support between domestic and foreign workers, and between workers and employers.
Organized labour’s role in Manitoba, however, must be viewed in its proper context and is not without apparent risks for workers. While protections and services for workers developed by organized labour may have motivated the provincial government to become more responsive to the needs of temporary workers and provincial nominees, these developments have also taken place within an environment of strong government support for permanent economic immigration.[cxiii] As discussed above, the MPNP was from its early beginnings oriented toward regional immigration strategies, which include concerns not only with labour shortages but also with population growth and demographic and geographic diversification. As well, Manitoba’s current pro-labour, New Democratic government has been highly responsive to workers’ rights and has independently developed settlement services for nominees and new immigrants under funding agreements with the federal government.
Without active participation from a provincial government that seeks to work with third-party stakeholders and employers rather than derogate public responsibility for regulation and support services, it is likely that these types of third-party activities will be insufficient to comprehensively meet the needs of vulnerable foreign workers and nominees. Clearly, the advantages of collective bargaining are only available in unionized workplaces, and it is questionable whether provincial nominees are being adequately protected even under Manitoba’s relatively well-developed set of employment standards and immigration services. In provinces such as Alberta where governments continue to promote TFWPs as a main source of temporary economic immigration, where nominee programs themselves continue to be highly unstable and open to employer abuses, and where governments have generally failed to provide any substantial supports or protections for temporary workers and provincial nominees, the wisdom of relying too heavily on third-party actors as a long-term strategy appears generally unsound.
The limits of offloading provincial responsibility for PNPs onto third parties such as organized labour are striking in circumstances where there are systemic or legislative barriers to participation for these parties. In Ontario, for example, agricultural workers are specifically excluded from the province’s labour relations regime.[cxiv] As a result, these workers—including foreign workers in the agricultural sector—are cut off from the provincial collective bargaining scheme, making it far more difficult for these workers and their advocates to implement even the qualified advances that have been pioneered by organized labour in Manitoba. The challenges currently facing agricultural workers in Ontario represent a sharp reminder that relying disproportionately on non-government actors to craft regulation and provide support in respect of the PNPs will likely disadvantage specific groups of vulnerable foreign workers and leave them to fall through the cracks of a patchwork of institutional controls and services.
At the national level, the devolution of provincial obligations to private actors will make it increasingly difficult to coordinate program design and regulatory controls between provincial jurisdictions and with the federal government. While organized labour has demonstrated an impressive ability to address some of the gaps left by the PNPs, these efforts are likely to remain essentially localized and their success will be determined on a case-by-case, depending on specific workplace needs and employer interests.[cxv] If, as present trends seem to indicate, Canada’s system of economic immigration continues to become more decentralized, these points of coordination will become increasingly important determinants of outcomes for workers. For example, as the discussion above makes clear, many of the problems of nominee program design arise as a response to the TFWPs. Manitoba has been successful, to a certain extent, in designing its PNP to utilize these as “transitional” rather than “temporary” worker programs. A more effective strategy going forward, however, would likely be for provinces to use their past experiences with the PNPs as a starting point – perhaps within the context of the federal-provincial immigration agreements – to negotiate with the federal government for fundamental reforms to the TFWPs. To do so, of course, will require provincial governments to consider closely whether it will be possible, and desirable, for the PNPs to remain wedded to a market-based, employer-driven model of economic immigration.
Lastly, the role of organized labour will always be circumscribed by the dynamics of opposing interests and collective bargaining. Ultimately, decision-makers need to question why it is that foreign workers and nominees are required to bargain for their basic rights and entitlements in the first place. Not only does this situation offend principles of equality, it effectively places the onus on vulnerable workers to make up for failures of program design at provincial and federal levels. This reality likely undermines much of the goodwill and the processes of norm building that organized labour has helped to promote in workplaces that participate in the PNPs and, in the long run, it ultimately threatens to erode Canada’s reputation as a desirable destination for economic immigrants.
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