Righteous Indignation?

This week’s guest blog is written by Ed Wiebe, Coordinator of MCC Canada’s Refugee and Migration Program.

Over the weekend I usually keep an eye on BBC News, and increasingly note how migration related stories roll across the screen. Such stories used to be far less prominent in Canada and remained mostly a distant reality. Not so any more.

According to the BBC, the bodies of six migrants apparently killed in a shipwreck were recovered on a beach in southern Italy in August.

In early August we saw what Italians were shocked to find on their resort beaches — boatloads of migrants with Syrian origins, washing up amidst the summer vacationers.  Among the still-upright boats were also ones that had taken on water, and people in the water — some dead, some still alive.

Every month more than a thousand migrants arrive in Italy by boat. What was noteworthy in this instance was that they did not arrive on deserted, rocky shores further south, but on the warm sandy shores further north. The serenity of vacationing was broken.

Seasonal migrant workers have been coming to Europe for many decades. What is new is where they now come from – Turkey, Syria and Egypt, as well as Sri Lanka, Congo and Eritrea – and why they come. They are not coming for seasonal work – rather, they are in desperate search of a new homeland because of civil war, poverty, environmental degradation, or local backlash against their ethnicity or gender.  In other words, they are forced to migrate.

A display drawing attention to the plight of temporary foreign workers. Photo credit KAIROS.

That is as close as such issues used to get to us here in Canada.  But not any more.  What is different here, though, is our relative distance from the genesis of people’s voyages.  Here those journeys often begin in Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico.  And the people often have work permits in their hands — albeit temporary ones. The expectation (the law, actually) is that they will work for a designated period at a designated workplace and then return home.

That is how it is supposed to work, and how our Minister of Immigration soothingly describes it when talking about labour shortages that “are hurting our economy.”  The reality inside the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program is quite different and carries with it eerie semblances of the scenes in Europe.

Canadian media have recently noticed that there are headline-gripping tales right here in Canada.  A scan over just the past few months shows stories about TFW’s here being exploited, short-changed and abused.  For example, Denny’s Restaurant franchise in BC was fined $1.4 million for short-changing temporary workers, and not repaying their travel  as required under the contract.

In Halifax, allegations of employers paying only $3 an hour were proved true and the employers fined (Global News, July 25, 2013).  In Alberta, a recent study revealed rampant abuses such as employee-owned dorms where their own workers were being charged for rents of up to $500/month for each space, with up to eight workers crowded into two bedroom suites. Routinely, such incidents are not uncovered through monitoring by the Federal TFW program, but rather anecdotally from workers themselves or community and union activists.

Most workers never report anything; they are too fearful of employer sanctions or being laid off, as had been the case of early complaints by the Denny’s workers. Some of those had been simply laid off and sent home with earned wages being left in arrears, nor travel reimbursed as promised. It was only the new batch of such workers who experienced the same, but were bravely able to bring their concerns to light.

Most alarming of all though, is the fact that the TFW program is now the largest immigration category of all in Canada. It has become the darling of industries ranging from the fast food, the oil patch, and construction labour.

As consumers we are now all implicated. As Christian we should be concerned – perhaps even righteously indignant?

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