Is Temporary Foreign Worker just the 21st century word for Slave?

Over the last few days the discussion regarding Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW) has heated up.

Once again we are hearing how companies are hiring TFWs in industries and services across Canada, often in the West central provinces, but they are employed all across this nation. From mines in BC (I addressed this last year in this blog ) to McDonalds in the Tarsands, Prairies based Tim Horton’s, to Ontario fruit and tobacco farms. TFWs are used everywhere to complete jobs. According to the Conservative supporters and business owners, it’s because they can’t stay in business without them, they are necessary to the profitability of their company and Canadian’s are unwilling, or unable to complete the necessary tasks, either due to lack of training or lack of will.

Now that sounds a lot like how the South defended slavery.

Defenders of slavery argued that the sudden end to the slave economy would have had a profound and killing economic impact in the South where reliance on slave labor was the foundation of their economy. The cotton economy would collapse. The tobacco crop would dry in the fields. Rice would cease being profitable.

And as Robert Fogel & Stanley Engerman claimed in their Book: Time on the cross

generally a highly profitable investment which yielded rates of return that compared favourably with the most outstanding investment opportunities in manufacturing

While the arguments we hear from the defenders of TFW call those opposed, Commies, Lefties, socialists. Just as James Thornwell, a minister, wrote in 1860,

“The parties in this conflict are not merely Abolitionists and slaveholders, they are Atheists, Socialists, Communists, Red Republicans, Jacobins on the one side and the friends of order and regulated freedom on the other.”

The arguments for keeping slaves in America were strong. The economic benefit was astounding, Even Ben Franklyn supported it for much of his adult life, and created the math that the south used to demonstrate the advantages of slavery over employees. Along with the prevailing idea that ‘free men’ would not be willing to do the demeaning jobs that slaves did. That opinion has travelled through the century to be echoed by current corporate mouths with ‘We can’t find Canadian’s willing to work in these fields’ Not the Cotton fields, the service fields. Seems it’s too demeaning for Canadians’ to work in restaurants out west. Canadian’s may not be willing or able to work in the required fields at offered wages, even the higher wage jobs I see offered in the food industry out west have odd requirements’, Part time, no guaranteed hours, must travel between several locations. Sure 17/hr sounds good for a counter clerk but who will apply for a job that might only give you 4 hours a day then a 20 mile drive to another 4 hour shift, maybe 2 days a week? Random hours and days so a second job is impossible to hold?

Bring in the TFWs, they can work the long hours, the short shifts. Pay them less then the standard and reep extra profit by charging them rent. You are doing them a favor, they are better off then they would be in their own country. Isn’t that exactly what Robert E Lee said in 1856?

“There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil. It is idle to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it is a greater evil to the white than to the colored race. While my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more deeply engaged for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, physically, and socially. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their further instruction as a race, and will prepare them, I hope, for better things. How long their servitude may be necessary is known and ordered by a merciful Providence”

Slavery or TFW, the arguments are the same.

Irrespective of the jobs that slaves did, slavery on the whole was profitable. The expense to planters for housing, clothing, and feeding slaves was considerably less than the value they produced. Estimates vary, but expenses associated with the maintenance of one field hand were probably half the value of the revenue the master received from the slave’s labor. Profitability increased steadily in the first half of the nineteenth century, as prices for cash crops rose and the cost of keeping slaves remained level. The slaves themselves became a good investment. As cotton production expanded and the demand for slaves increased, their prices rose accordingly. The highest prices were paid for “prime field hands,” usually healthy young men in their late teens and twenties, but women with like agricultural skills were often sold for the same amounts. The enterprising slave owner bought and sold slaves for an additional source of income

Now, I personally witnessed some of the conditions in Ontario of TFWs at Ontario Farms back in the 1990s while working as a travelling salesman. I saw some well treated, well fed and well housed with reasonable pay. I also saw TFWs housed in corrugated steel sheds attached to a barn, bunks stacked 3 high in a building I mistook for a chicken coop when I saw it. I was witness to several farm workers being hospitalized due to poison, after drinking pesticide laced water from drainage ditches because the employer did not supply water while working in the field. I saw 20 Carribian workers dirty and tired riding down the road on the plywood covered back of a stripped down truck. On their way back to a tiny shed from 14 hours in the field. I was told of rent being charged to workers living in buildings that would not be considered fit for humans. I was informed of a worker, injured on the job, quickly loaded onto a plane home so the farmer would not have to pay for medical aid.
What are the results?

Slavery was profitable, but caused massive stagnation in the States’ that used it. Little diversity, little education, less transportation, less innovation, the local free men who did not own slaves (75% of the population) mostly living in poverty with little opportunity for growth, limited education options. There was no need to instruct or improve the citizens, as long as there was a convenient pool of slave labour available to support your profits.

Canada risks seeing a similar situation. Stagnant wages, the disillusion of unions, the failure of companies to invest in the training and education of local citizens, capable of filling employment needs. If a company wants lower paid employees, what incentive does it have to insure there are local citizens qualified to do the jobs? It goes against profitability to purposely train a more expensive workforce when cheap labour is available. Especially if you are legally obligated to hire those newly educated citizens.

It took a civil war to place the morality above the profitability of a handful of greedy families in America. What will it take for Canada to recognize our repeat of history?

Further reading: Did Slavery Make economic sense?




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