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The Similarities Between Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker Program and Slavery

04/17/2014 06:22 EDT | Updated 06/17/2014 05:59 EDT

Most people know what slavery is. Aside from its historical context it has been in the news quite a bit lately as efforts are made to eradicate the modern slave trade. However, people who do not remember their history classes well may have forgotten about indentured servitude.

Indentured servitude was, basically, temporary slavery for white people. Wealthy individuals and businesses would pay the passage of a person in Britain or Europe who wanted to immigrate to the colonies. That person, in turn, had to work for the person who payed their passage for a set number of years, usually seven.

Given that the indentured servant could not leave or quit though, the practice was little better than slavery. In some ways it was even worse. Because the indentured servant was temporary, employers would sometimes work them to death.

From Wikipedia:

" .. indentured servants were exploited as cheap labour and could be severely maltreated. For example, the seventeenth-century French buccaneer Alexander Exquemelin reported malnourishment and deadly beatings by the servants' masters and generally harsher treatment and labour than that of their slaves on the island of Hispaniola.[1] The reason being that working the servants excessively spared the masters' slaves, which were held as perpetual property as opposed to the temporary services of servants."

Currently, Canada is operating a temporary foreign worker program under which employers may bring foreign workers into Canada to work for a set period of time. The temporary workers are bound to their employer and may not quit for any reason or seek other employment.

As it turns out, the control employers have over the workers runs far deeper than that at least in some cases.

From the CBC:

"Foreign workers recruited from Belize are accusing McDonald's Canada of treating them like "slaves," by effectively forcing them to share an expensive apartment - then deducting almost half their take-home pay as rent ... Records from three employees show they made $11 an hour working at various McDonald's locations and the company took $280 from their pay for rent, bi-weekly. Their remaining take-home pay for the same pay periods was roughly $350."

There is no doubt that this program benefits Canadian businesses, but in order for it to be ethically legitimate it should also benefit the employees. If the program were designed to bring people from impoverished countries, allow them to work for a time, save money and return home there might be some merit to that. However, according to the CBC report it sounds like they will go home almost empty handed.

While $280 bi-weekly (roughly $560 / month) isn't excessive for rent, given the workers overall salary it leaves them with about $175/week for other living expenses. Given the cost of living in most of Canada it is not going to allow them to save very much to take home with them.

If it were a path to citizenship it would still be terribly exploitive and would be very similar to indentured servitude, but there would be some small amount of merit to it. However, while indentured servants were, should they survive their servitude, promised freedom and citizenship, participants in Canada's current "temporary foreign worker" program are not. When their employment is done they are sent back to their country of origin.

Of course it is in some ways better than historic indentured servitude. Foreign workers, in theory, have legal recourse to prevent their employers from physically abusing them or working them to death. Of course, it remains to be seen how effective attempts to use that legal recourse would be.

So, it seems to me that we are left with something frighteningly close to the barely disguised temporary slavery of the 17th-19th centuries. I have heard many complaints about this program being used to take jobs away from Canadian citizens but, for me, that is not the problem at all.

In 2014, slavery and human trafficking are occurring at levels that rival those of the colonial period. The current temporary foreign worker program seems little better than a thinly disguised version of indentured servitude. Canadians should be ashamed for allowing it to happen here and companies using the program should wear the stigma of it permanently.

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