04/08/2013 12:09 EDT | Updated 06/08/2013 05:12 EDT

Immigrants Need Solutions, Not Lip Service

The newest 2013 Economic Action Plan (its not a budget!) is a 2015 campaign document that only promises to sow further divides between working people. Little truth can be expected from Flaherty & Co. considering that the just-retired Parliamentary Budget Officer spent his last day at work in court trying to find out what happened following the 2012 Conservative budget.

Canada's "Temporary Foreign Worker Program" has received significant attention over the past year, including media reports on the HD mining crisis in BC, the Hampstead, Ontario, tragedy where 10 migrant workers died in a car accident without any coroner's inquest being called, and the recent half-baked consultations by the Federal Government on future directions of Canada's migrant worker programs.

Where it appears in the budget, Canada's migration scheme and the current unemployment dilemma is painted by the Conservative government and many commentators afterwards as a competition between promoting migrant labour or Canadian employment. Fact is, many migrant workers could, and sometimes do, become Canadians. And many low-wage Canadians are, in fact, recent immigrants. The missing story is that the Conservative strategy is one of divide-and-rule, about making workers -- with or without immigration status -- work more for less.

First, the Conservatives' EI reforms encourage internal labour migration by pushing workers into farther-off, lower-paying jobs.

Second, the Conservatives' newest non-budget has quietly downloaded the cost of the Labour Market Opinion (LMO) process onto employers. Since LMOs are required for most migrants to work in Canada, this change will likely just be one further cost put on their backs, after already paying exorbitant fees to work come work in Canada.

The Conservatives are doing nothing to address all this, either paying lip service to stopping recruiters from charging fees to migrant workers, or just saying it's not their job and pointing fingers at the provinces. All of these fees put migrant workers and their families into debt that keeps them from speaking out against abusive conditions of work (watch this video).

The Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC) and its member organizations, including Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW), have documented several testimonies including that of 'S' who paid $9,000 to come to Canada from Thailand to earn minimum wage as a food processor in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

I needed to come here to work to improve standards in my family, to send my three younger brothers and sisters to university and to build houses for my family. Like me, migrant workers come here to work because they have families and children to support. When we are here we are helping to provide food and we are helping the Canadian economy. The work that I do many Canadians choose not to do. That is why they get us to work in the farms and in the plants for low wages...they will not be able to re-pay all the debts they paid to come to Canada in the first place. They will have to do the process all over again, and pay again to the agencies. These changes will have no impact on recruitment agencies. These changes do not protect workers at all. We want the law to help us, not push us out of Canada.

Recently the Vancouver Sun profiled the story of Cynthia Centeno who sought support from migrant activist members of J4MW. Centeno paid over $5,000 in illegal recruitment fees and had been advocating for the return of these fees. Though charging fees is illegal under British Columbia law, it remains legal in Ontario.

Downloading the costs of the LMO process will only lead to increased recruitment and placement costs of migrant workers who will have no real protection to stop these exorbitant fees.

Migrant workers lack real protection because their work permits are tied to individual employers and they only have four years to make enough to pay back their recruiter debts before being banned from Canada for four years (as required by Conservative changes to immigration regulations).

Migrant workers and their allies have consistently demanded open work permits and status on landing -- the only real means to ensure that the downward push on wages that occurs by pitting migrant workers and the unemployed against each other stops. The Economic Action Plan fails to address these key issues.

In fact, nothing in this budget provides for settling or integrating migrant workers, protecting their rights where they work or sleep, developing a pan Canadian plan to ban placement and recruitment fees, or the ability for Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program and low-skilled category migrants to get permanent residency. It pays some lip service to getting the "right kind of immigrant," but no actual means to do so are clarified. In fact, if the people working here, taking care of our communities and ensuring food on our tables are not the "right kind of immigrant," who is?

If the great "Economic Action Plan" is to run TV commercials while getting everyone -- citizens, immigrants, migrant workers, refugees, non-status people -- to work more for less, it's no surprise that this budget lacks all of the above. Instead, the Conservatives are using immigration changes as part of a broader policy that includes attacks on indigenous rights, women, expansion of police and prisons as the crime rate falls, hand outs to corporations and expansion of multilateral trade agreements. A unified migrant justice analysis must be developed and shared to combat this policy. And the voices of migrant and undocumented people must be at the core of this analysis. That, if anything, is what this pseudo-budget is all about.

Thank you to Chris Ramsaroop and Amar Bhatia for their work on this piece.

Jason Kenney At HuffPost