Migrant dreams can be nightmares


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Border crossings into Manitoba have made recent international headlines as unprecedented numbers of refugee claimants enter the province in search of refuge and “the Canadian dream.”

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/03/2017 (2204 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Border crossings into Manitoba have made recent international headlines as unprecedented numbers of refugee claimants enter the province in search of refuge and “the Canadian dream.”

Canada indeed offers the dream of a secure, viable future to many immigrants and refugees. All of us who are not indigenous have a story of our ancestors arriving in this country. However, we cannot forget that there are many for whom Canada is not rolling out the welcome mat. Temporary migrant workers or “guest workers,” who often work in jobs undesirable to most Canadians, contribute to Manitoba’s economy and social fabric, but are treated as second-tier citizens and, in many cases, modern-day indentured labour.

Detailing such experiences, the important documentary film Migrant Dreams will be screened today at the Dramatic Arts Centre in Winnipeg. The film’s acclaimed director, Min Sook Lee, will be present to introduce the film and speak about her experiences with migrant workers. The documentary focuses on migrant women who come to Canada through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), and who negotiate a system that allows both their labour and vulnerability to be exploited by unscrupulous employers and recruiters. Migrant Dreams tells a story of desperation, struggle and hope.

Although Canada has traditionally been a country of permanent immigration, levels of temporary migration have skyrocketed in recent years. In the early 2000s, a stream for lower-skilled occupations was added to the TFWP with the intention of addressing purported labour shortages in certain sectors.

Employer use of the TFWP dramatically increased, and annual entries of temporary migrants with work permits began outnumbering permanent immigrants. It is through the lower-skilled stream of the TFWP that the migrants in Min Sook Lee’s film come to Canada.

The continuation and expansion of the TFWP into lower-wage sectors demonstrates that, particularly in some regions and industries, migrants are indeed filling longer-term labour needs. In Manitoba, temporary foreign workers can be found in a range of occupations, including long-haul trucking, agriculture, health care, trades and construction and industrial meat-processing.

The stories presented in Migrant Dreams document how temporary migrant workers, particularly those in low-wage positions, are vulnerable to abuses by employers and recruiters. They have limited labour market mobility and differential access to settlement services, and pay into but are ineligible for benefits such as employment insurance. Some face unsafe work conditions and threats of deportation. Their temporary status, which is predicated on employment, is the source of much vulnerability.

Manitoba is a national leader in ensuring the protection of migrant workers and allowing them paths to permanency. Manitoba’s Worker Recruitment and Protection Act, the first of its kind in Canada, is aimed at decreasing recruitment-related fraud and abuse through increased proactive enforcement. Manitoba’s Provincial Nominee Program (PNP) provides temporary migrants an opportunity to become permanent residents and is unique in accepting applicants with a range of skill levels. Workers may apply for nomination through the PNP after six months. It offers a pathway into the country for those who might not otherwise meet the stringent educational requirements for immigration, but whose skills are still very much needed. Immigration through the PNP has contributed to community economic development and demographic growth in places such as Brandon, Neepawa and Steinbach.

Even with these policies in place, temporary migrants continue to struggle in Canada. As the ultimate flexible and “disposable” workforce, migrants are considered good enough to work, but not good enough to stay, always expected to return to their home countries once their labour is no longer needed. Even for those few who are successfully nominated to stay permanently, research has shown that precarious temporary status and family separation — and its attendant instability, uncertainty and anxiety — often have long-lasting effects for workers, their families and their communities.

During his campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned two-tier citizenship as fundamentally un-Canadian. Yet the TFWP effectively creates an unequal, two-tier labour system, with temporary migrants living and working in our communities, sometimes for years, without the same rights and opportunities as those with permanent status. The fact that some migrants seek work in Canada because of desperate situations in their homelands does not justify their treatment as second-class citizens.

The TFWP is a stop-gap solution to an inadequate overall immigration system. As yet another overhaul of the program is rolled out this year, we wait to see whether the federal government has listened to advocates’ calls for a more fair and just migration system. With university and community-based groups, we are co-organizing the Migrant Dreams screening to further public discussion about our current policies and how to effectively advocate for a system that offers all who arrive in Manitoba — whether seeking refuge or actively recruited to work here — the welcome they deserve, and the opportunity to see their dreams realized.

Sarah Zell is a research associate at the University of Winnipeg’s Institute of Urban Studies and Jill Bucklaschuk is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada post-doctoral fellow at the University of Guelph in the Ontario-based university’s department of sociology and anthropology.

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