Shopping for Labour

November 22nd, 2000
By Naomi Klein

When Alliance candidate Betty Granger used the phrase "Asian invasion," it was a flashback to Second World War "yellow peril" rhetoric and she was forced to resign. But there was another pearl of wisdom the ex-candidate shared with students at the University of Winnipeg, one that went largely unnoticed. Referring to the boats of Chinese immigrants seized off the B.C. coast, she said, "There was a realization that what was coming off these boats was not the best clientele you would want for this country."

Clientele. It doesn’t have the same xenophobic ring as "Asian invasion"; in fact, it sounds positively clinical. But it may be more dangerous, especially because it is an idea that is not relegated to the fringe of the Alliance but lies at the very centre of the national immigration debate.

We often talk about migrant labourers as "clients," while our country, with its public health care and reasonably healthy job market, is the product these clients would like to purchase. Since there are millions of migrants shopping around, we can carefully assess, as Ms. Granger did, whether they are "the best" clients available.

"Betty Granger just expressed out there in the open a prevailing, but false, idea about immigrants, which is that immigrants are people who come to be served," says Fely Villasin, co-ordinator of the advocacy group Intercede for the Rights of Domestic Workers, Caregivers and Newcomers.

The truth is that mass migration is not a form of homeland shopping: It is the flip side of the free-trade policies our government so actively pursues. People don’t mortgage their futures to get on rusty boats because they are in the market for something a little more upscale. They do it because changes at home have left them without a without a job, without land, without choices.

It could have been a war or a hurricane. But it could also have been less dramatic shifts: farmland converted to export factories or industrial plantations, or drowned out by mega-dams. Last week, Nelson Mandela presented a report assessing the global impact of mega-dams, projects traditionally seen by the World Bank as necessary pre-conditions to joining the global economy. The report, published by the World Commission on Dams, found that the projects were dramatically increasing migration flows—1.2-million people will be displaced by China’s Three Gorges Dam alone.

Residents forced off their land by dams and other development schemes move to cities, and they also board boats destined for other countries. When Canada lobbies for more investment opportunities for our energy companies, all Canadians become complicit in this mass displacement of people—people displaced by globalization itself.

But migrant workers, who now number 70 million to 85 million globally, are more than the unseen side effect of globalization. Once displaced, they also enter the free market, not as clients but as commodities, selling the only thing they have left: their labour.

Our government, we are told, favours a level playing field in the international trade of commodities. We have championed the World Trade Organization, we are about to lead the charge to expand the North American free-trade agreement into Central and South America. We fight for the principle of treating foreign companies as we do our own: no unfair domestic subsidies, no extra regulations, no strings attached to investment.

But when the commodity being traded across borders is labour, these protections and principles disappear. Every year, roughly 200,000 migrant workers come to Canada to work as low-wage cleaners, seamstresses, nannies and seasonal farm workers. And yet our government has flatly refused to ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, an agreement that would protect them from discrimination.

Instead, we have the Live-In Caregiver Program, which legislates unequal treatment for housekeepers and nannies who come to Canada and live in their employers’ homes. Under the program, migrants must work full-time without landed immigrant status or basic labour protections for 24 months over a three-year period. Only if they meet the work quota can they apply for residency. If they don’t, they are deported.

Because they live in their workplace, unpaid overtime is rampant and sexual abuse is common. But because their immigration status depends on keeping these jobs, most workers are not inclined to complain.

Betty Granger said the migrants who come to Canada are "not the best clientele." In fact, it is Canadians who are the clientele of cheap migrant labour: We purchase it for our homes, farms, restaurants and factories. Only when we recognize that we are already participating in this free trade in people—and not generously opening our borders to the world’s needy—will migrants receive the protection that is their human right.

This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.