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Achieving Voice, Exit, and Justice for Canada’s Migrant Workers

By: Victoria L. Henderson - @vlhenderson - Dec 2, 2013, 10:22 am

EspañolIt hardly seems fair — but it is sadly unsurprising — that the individuals least responsible for declining productivity at the H.J. Heinz processing plant in Leamington, Ontario, are likely to be among the workers to suffer most from its closure.

When the 104-year-old plant shuts down next year, most members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) Local 459 can expect “very generous severance arrangements,” says Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway. Earlier this year, he joined forces with 3G Capital to purchase and streamline the global operations of Heinz.

But there are no such assurances for hundreds of migrant workers in the Heinz supply chain.

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Protest by migrant labor advocates in Canada. Source: Rabble.ca.

For decades, the comparatively low-cost labor of foreign agri-food workers — most from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean — has helped to offset the increasingly uncompetitive price of doing business in Ontario. Industry spokesmen and politicians have blamed everything from energy rates to food packaging regulations and a strong Canadian dollar for the loss of more than 250,000 manufacturing jobs since 2003.

Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker (SAW) and “low-skill” Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) programs have helped to shore up domestic productivity by bringing tens of thousands of migrants to Canada every year.

Advocates say the programs are proof of the positive-sum benefits of guest-worker policies. While this is arguably true, it is worth unpacking concerns over guest-worker programs, since critics raise important points about voice and exit: two concepts that hold resonance for contemporary discussions about competitive governance as a development paradigm.

Who Speaks for Migrant Workers?

In Canada, UFCW has long positioned itself as a “defender of migrant workers’ rights.” In practice, however, unions have historically lobbied with those who resist guest-worker programs, citing concerns over native wage depression, insecurity, and issues of sovereignty.

Migrant workers in Leamington. Source: El Contrato.

While the divide between unions and foreign workers may be less explicit today than in times past, it continues to find expression in subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, ways. In a statement responding to the announced closure of Heinz in Leamington, for example, UFCW National Council President Paul Meinema lashed out at foreign interests for “sucking up the hard-earned value of an operation that was built by generations of hard-working Canadians and their families.”

There’s no doubt that the heart and soul of Leamington is intricately bound to Heinz. The company is Leamington’s largest employer and purchases almost half of all tomatoes grown in Ontario.

But along with the contributions of hard-working Canadians — including tax and utility concessions by the municipality of Leamington, the commitment of generations of Ontario farmers, and successive waves of immigrants — Heinz was built with US capital and, increasingly of late, with the labor of migrant workers. The latter, selectively erased from Meinema’s historical revisionism.

It is not without reason that a community organizer with Justice for Migrant Workers, one of Canada’s largest migrant advocacy networks, has questioned whether “a Canadian — predominantly white and hierarchical — union [can] serve the interests of migrant farm workers.”

When Exit Fails to Amplify Voice

Theories of competitive governance point to the ways in which voice (understood as a vehicle for political reform, e.g., voting or protesting) and exit (understood as an analogous option in the realm of the market, e.g., emigration) can lead to improvements in political responsiveness across jurisdictions.

Source: Institute for Research on Public Policy.

If Balaji Srinivasan is correct in suggesting that exit amplifies voice and that the signalling function of exit works best when people depart in droves, it raises the question of why the exodus of migrant workers — legal and illegal — from low-income nations has failed to force any fundamental improvements in the political regimes of these countries.

Critics of Canada’s guest-worker programs arguably help to shed light on this problem in two ways: by drawing distinctions between exit as a physical and legal concept, and by raising questions about the extent to which migrant voices are heard in the exterior.

The economic logic behind migrant worker programs holds that labor finds its highest-valued use when workers are free to seek their maximum asking price across borders, whether these borders are inter- or intra-national. In most temporary work programs, however, the legal (and in some cases residential) status of migrant workers is tied to a specific employer.

As migration analysts have long argued, “The act of tethering migrants keeps their self interests from achieving the very efficiency that [migrant work programs] are created to provide.”

While mandating worker loyalty by law is not exclusive to low-skilled labor, Canada’s agricultural guest-worker programs reveal the knock-on problems — isolation, depression, and racism, for example — that can result from the clustering of highly immobile foreign workers, most of whom are single males, in host communities that are culturally, and often linguistically, distinct.

In Leamington, migrant workers account for more than 15 per cent of the town’s population of 28,000. In response to labor strife and social conflicts in the area, the government of Mexico opened a consulate there in 2005.

However, the political responsibility of consular and other diplomatic agents to represent co-nationals in Canada is arguably compromised by their responsibility to mediate worker-employee and cross-cultural disputes in the interest of ensuring that remittances, often the largest source of external financing for poor countries, continue to flow south.

New Opportunities

Against the backdrop of plant closures, protectionist rhetoric, and news that the federal government is cracking down on abuses in its guest-worker programs, the future for migrant labor in Canada is decidedly uncertain.

At the same time, however, new approaches to competitive governance in the developing world promise to disrupt the legacy systems that for too long have limited the mobility and voice of migrant workers. In Honduras, proposals for new startup cities and LEAP zones seek to align the efficiencies of labor and capital mobility with endogenous development.

Unlike migrant worker programs that disconnect labor — conceptually and geographically — from the broader social fabric, these new jurisdictions can optimize social coordination by allowing people to vote with their feet, opting into, or out of, semi-autonomous communities that remain linked to, but not dependent on, central government.

Time will tell if these projects lower the barriers to exit and amplify local voice enough to make them a preferable alternative to international guest-worker programs. If so, Canada, like other long-time recipients of migrant labor, will be forced to find new ways to boost productivity in order to compete.

Victoria L. Henderson Victoria L. Henderson

A former print journalist and magazine editor, Henderson is a PhD Candidate (ABD) at Queen’s University and a director at the Institute for Social and Economic Analysis in Ontario, Canada. She holds degrees in Spanish & Latin American Studies and Geography. Follow @vlhenderson, and read more of her featured PanAm Post column, "The Northern Passage."