There are basically two ways to respond to immigration: The racist response argues for a White Canada and accuses immigrants of taking jobs, housing, and social services away from White Canadians. These racist messages are openly promoted by hundreds of right-wing and fascist organizations, including the mainstream People’s Party of Canada that campaigns to “Substantially lower the total number of immigrants and refugees” because (they claim) immigrants “cost Canadian taxpayers billions of dollars” and undermine “Canadian values.”
The socialist response to immigration is based on working-class solidarity: the belief that an injury to one is an injury to all and that the best way to raise our living standards is for all workers to stand together against the employer class.
Free to move
Everything on Earth is in motion. Animals, birds, fish, insects, plants, viruses, all migrate. Air, water, and even the continents move.
For hundreds of thousands of years, there were no human obstacles to migration, and people travelled freely from our origins in Africa to populate every corner of the globe. The freedom to travel ended with the emergence of private property, no-trespassing laws, and the rise of nation states.
Nation states are defined by policed borders and by the nationalist myth that people on one side of the border share a common identity and values that are not shared by people on the other side. This is nonsense. Borders are arbitrarily drawn and redrawn. As Mexican Americans point out, “We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us.”
We are indoctrinated in nationalism from childhood. Every morning, school children are required to sing Oh Canada or God Save the Queen/King. In the US, it’s The Star-Spangled Banner, America the Beautiful, or The Pledge of Allegiance. This practice accustoms us to embrace the interests of our rulers as our interests, and their goals as our goals.
The myth of a united nation binds workers to their rulers and, in the process, divides them from their own class, including migrant workers in their own communities who are stigmatized as ‘them,’ not ‘us.’
Despite a cost-of-living crisis, exhaustive media coverage of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral urged workers to forget their class grievances and rally behind a myth of national unity based on reverence for monarchy, empire, White supremacy, and Indigenous genocide. Union bureaucrats bent their knee to the ruling class by suspending national strikes of postal and transport workers.
Nationalism is inherently racist because it distinguishes who is and is not worthy of entry to the nation. Nationalism justified excluding Chinese migrant workers from settling in Canada after being brought here to build the trans-Canada railway. It justified forcing thousands of Japanese Canadians into concentration camps during WWII. And it justified Canada refusing entry to a rescue ship carrying over 900 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany.
The capitalist class claim the right to control the movements of the working class. They do not have this right. If the goods workers produce are allowed to move freely through the world, then the people who make those goods deserve the same right.
Labor shortage or wage shortage?
All wealthier nations, including Canada, have a birth rate below replacement level, meaning not enough babies are born to replace those who die. Canada also has an aging population. Since 2001, the number of people over age 85 has doubled. Presently, immigration accounts for more than 80 percent of Canada’s population growth and almost 100 percent of its labour force growth. This has not been enough, and the business class is calling for more migrant labor.
The COVID pandemic caused more than 44,000 deaths in Canada, disabled many thousands more, pulled people out of work to care for the sick and disabled, and prompted a record number of older workers to retire early.
This past June, unemployment hit its lowest level in 50 years. Statistics Canada reports over one million unfilled jobs across all provinces and sectors, especially in health care, construction, accommodation, food, retail, and manufacturing. In Ontario, more than 300,000 jobs are unfilled. The situation is similar in the US, where 11 million job openings were posted in July.
It’s not as though everyone seeking a job can have one. There are a million unemployed workers in Canada because the wages being offered in many sectors are lower than most workers will accept. People need more. Compared with last year, nearly twice as many workers left lower-paid jobs for higher-paid ones. This has increased the number of unfilled low-waged jobs.
Because of the shortage of workers or, more accurately, the shortage of wages, existing workers are being forced to work extra shifts and extended hours that increase workplace stress, injuries, and deaths. When workers at one scaffolding company refused to work regular overtime, the company threatened to fire them and have them jailed for engaging in an illegal strike.
When workers are difficult to attract, employers are forced to compete for them. Some fast-food outlets are offering $17 an hour to start. Other companies are offering thousands of dollars in sign-on bonuses.
While offering higher pay does attract workers, it cuts into profits. It also gives workers confidence to push for more.
Governments fear that existing conditions could lead to a wage explosion, so they are raising interest rates to slow the economy, increase unemployment, and dampen workers’ demands.
They also plan to import more low-waged workers with fewer rights to resist substandard conditions. Canada’s immigration system provides this kind of labor by offering mostly temporary and conditional permits that tie workers to a single employer.
When temporary and conditional permits inevitably expire, they are difficult to renew because the application process is complicated, and the system is seriously backlogged, with more than 1.5 million applications for study permits, work permits, temporary visas, and visitor extensions waiting to be reviewed.
Until their applications are approved, which can take years or even decades, migrants without documents have no legal rights or protections, no access to social services or medical care, and must work for cash under the table. Currently half-a-million people in Canada are undocumented, mostly because of expired permits. They live in poverty, and the threat of deportation makes them vulnerable to wage theft, sexual assault, and other abuses.
Denying migrant workers resident status and equal rights has the same destructive effect as multi-tier contracts, where people doing similar work are paid differently. Employers push such contracts because they cut labor costs and boost profits. Different pay levels create resentment that can make it harder for workers to unite against bad treatment.
Canada’s immigration system remains deeply racist. Those with special skills or money to invest are fast-tracked through the system. Those with less money and fewer skills face overwhelming obstacles. White immigrants are prioritized over Black and Brown ones, English speakers over those without English, younger adults over older ones, and the able-bodied over the disabled.
The original Immigration Act of 1910 enabled the government to bar immigrants “belonging to any race deemed unsuitable to the climate” meaning people of color. The Act aimed to limit immigration to “healthy, white, preferably British or American agriculturalists.”
In 1914, the transport ship Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver with 376 passengers from Punjab province in India. Being British citizens, the passengers requested admission to Canada. Canadian courts ruled that Asians are a “non-assimilative race” and refused them entry. By the end of 1920, most racialized peoples were excluded from Canada.
In 1952, the Immigration Act replaced the term “race” with “ethnic group,” while it continued the White Canada policy. The Director of Immigration at the time stated,
It is not by accident that coloured British subjects are excluded from Canada… they do not assimilate readily and pretty much vegetate to a low standard of living.
The problem of how to ease the labour shortage in Canada while blocking the settlement of racialized peoples was solved with temporary migrant worker programs.
Since 1966, the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) has provided Canada’s agriculture industry with precarious labour.
The SAWP primarily recruits workers from Mexico and the Caribbean. Every season, more than 60,000 of these workers come to labour on Canadian farms. Over 8,000 come to Windsor-Essex counties in Ontario.
The SAWP is a form of modern slavery. Seasonal workers are not protected by the Employment Standards Act, and they cannot change employers. They suffer wage theft and other abuses. They are repeatedly exposed to pesticides and herbicides, and can be deported for any reason. Despite working in Canada every season, often for decades, migrant farm workers are prohibited from settling here. When they get sick, injured, make trouble, become less-productive, or die, they are simply shipped home and replaced.
There are plenty of workers willing to migrate. Many are desperate to leave homelands ravaged by colonialism, war, poverty, and climate change. Wealthy nations use these migrants to regulate their own labor force. They open their borders to migrant workers when they need more or cheaper labor, and close them when they don’t.
A global migration industry has developed to exploit this situation.
Trafficking human labor
Migrant workers are the single largest group of people subject to human trafficking, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is the leading organization that traffics in human labor. Their website states,
From its roots as an operational logistics agency, the IOM has become an essential international actor in the field of human mobility, and a key source of advice on migration policy and practice.
Who benefits from this setup? Wealthy nations benefit from access to low-waged labor. The migration industry profits from providing that labor. And employers profit by hiring workers with fewer rights to refuse substandard conditions.
Clearly, migrant workers suffer.
Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers were brought to Qatar to build over $200 billion worth of infrastructure for the World Cup. Although thousands died from working in the extreme desert heat, Qatar blamed their deaths on natural causes and denied their families compensation. Workers who protested not being paid for many months were deported. Such abuse is not uncommon. In New York city, migrant workers are protesting not being paid for their work during last year’s US Open tennis championships.
Capital also migrates to find the cheapest and most manageable labor force – typically women in the poorest nations.
Crudely put, the relationship between many Third World governments and multinational corporations is like that of a pimp and his customers. The governments advertise their women [workers], and keep them in line for the multinational “johns.” But there are other parties to the growing international traffic in women: Western governments, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).
Myth of scarcity
Do established workers benefit or suffer from an influx of newcomers?
An employer, a Canadian worker and a migrant worker sit down at a table with 12 cookies. The employer gobbles up 11 cookies, then says to the Canadian worker “Are you going to let that foreigner take the last cookie?”
Canada produces more than enough cookies for everyone. Last year, workers in this country produced $3 trillion worth of goods and services. That’s two-and-a-half times more than we produced 20 years ago. Our wages haven’t gone up two-and-a-half times. On the contrary, wages have stagnated or fallen in real terms. That’s because employers took all the cookies, leaving workers to fight over the crumbs: low wages; threadbare social supports; back-breaking, soul-killing work; and a falling standard of living.
Are bosses taking too much, so there’s not enough for the rest of us? Or are there too many of us, and not enough to go around, so we need to reduce our numbers? This second explanation is based on the myth of scarcity. For over 200 years, the belief that there are too many needy people has been used to justify social inequality and working-class deprivation.
Consider the lack of affordable housing. Most people living in large Canadian cities cannot afford the cost of rent. In the US, a full-time minimum-wage worker cannot afford rent in ANY state.
Is the problem too many people, not enough housing, or wages too low to access what housing is available? There are millions of vacant homes in the world, including over a million in Canada.
We face the same question with regard to food. OXFAM reports that one person is dying of starvation every 4 seconds, and 50 million other people are on the brink of starving to death in 45 countries. The World Food Program also warns that millions of people are at risk of dying due to food shortages. But there is no shortage of food.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, a surplus of 7 billion pounds of red meat, 1.5 billion pounds of poultry, 1.2 billion pounds of cheese, and billions more pounds of butter, eggs, fruits and vegetables are preserved in cold storage. Every wealthy nation has similar stockpiles.
If we think the problem is too many people chasing not enough goods, then we should close the door to immigrants. If we think the problem is rich people hoarding the wealth, the food, and everything else, then we should change society to ensure that what we produce meets people’s needs.
It is commonly believed that immigrants take jobs from Canadians, raise unemployment, and lower wages. This may seem common-sense, but it’s not so simple.
Last year David Card won the Nobel Prize for showing that an influx of immigrants doesn’t always lower wages or increase unemployment. He used the impact of the Mariel boat lift.
In 1980, 125,000 people left the Cuban port of Mariel and landed in Miami, increasing the Miami labor force by 7 percent. Yet wages did not fall and unemployment did not rise, not even for low-waged workers who had immigrated earlier.
There are several possible explanations: Miami has a large Spanish-speaking population, so it was easy for the newcomers to find jobs. The Mariels may have taken jobs that opened up as previous Cuban immigrants with better English language skills took better-paid jobs. After the Mariels arrived, fewer people from other parts of the US migrated to Miami. An influx of 125,000 people increased the demand for goods and services, creating more jobs in the local economy.
This study did not prove that more immigrants never lower wages or increase unemployment. It only shows that it doesn’t have to do so.
There is no shortage of work that needs to be done!
We could create many more jobs by investing in upgrading schools, building affordable housing, medical clinics, long-term-care facilities, and childcare centers. Even more jobs could be created by working fewer hours and slowing the pace. There is no good reason for us to be working as hard as we do.
Grand theft capitalism
When the computer/digital revolution was taking off, we were told that we would all be working less and have so much leisure time we wouldn’t know what to do with it all. It could have been so.
As mentioned earlier, all the goods we produced and services we provided 20 years ago could be produced or provided in less than half the time today. If workers had reaped the benefits of that rise in productivity, we could have had a four-hour day, or a work-year of six months, or taken every other year off from work – with pay. Imagine how different our lives would be! And that’s just the productivity rise of the past 20 years. We produce 50 times more today than we produced 60 years ago.
We were lied to and robbed! The benefit of rising productivity went exclusively to the employers, who got richer and more powerful as trillions of dollars were transferred from workers to bosses.
During the first two years of the pandemic alone, the world’s 10 richest men more than doubled their fortunes. Today, just 10 individuals command more wealth than the annual value of all goods and services produced by most nations. That is truly mind-boggling!
The reason why most people today work so hard and so long for so little has nothing to do with immigrants. We are victims of grand theft capitalism.
Decades of funding cuts, a lethal pandemic, and wage restraint have plunged the medical system into crisis, with emergency rooms regularly closing for lack of staff. Ontario spends $2,000 less on medical treatment per person per year than the average of the other provinces. It has the lowest per-person hospital funding, the fewest hospital beds, and the fewest nurses.
There are more than 45,000 staffing vacancies in the Ontario medical system. Overworked hospital staff suffer more violent assaults than workers in any other industry.
The solution is simple; a massive infusion of funds to increase capacity, hire more staff, and improve wages and working conditions.
Instead of properly funding hospitals, the Ontario government used Bill 124 to hold down nurses’ wages while fast-tracking the registration of thousands of immigrant nurses who, they hope, will accept substandard working conditions.
Some say, keep the foreigners out so Canadians can have those jobs. Canadians don’t want them. Fifteen thousand Registered Nurses and Registered Practical Nurses have left the Ontario medical system because of abysmal working conditions, including the outrageous demand to work while sick.
There could be plenty of decent jobs with good pay, IF employers sacrificed some of their profits. They refuse to do this. They prefer to use migrant workers as cheap labor and convenient scapegoats to hide the fact that they, the employers and the politicians who serve them, are the ones driving down our living standards.
Do migrants take more than they give?
No employer and no nation would bring in migrant workers if they cost more than they contribute. It’s actually the other way around. Migrant workers contribute more to the economy than the average Canadian worker.
The cost of raising a child in Canada to age 18 is close to $300,000. Most migrant workers arrive fully-grown and ready to work, for free. The cost of raising and training them was borne by their families and countries of origin. They come during their peak productive years, pay taxes, and purchase goods and services that stimulate local economies.
To be fair, Canada should compensate the families and countries of migrant workers because their economic contribution far outweighs whatever meagre social supports they get from government.
The real tax drain is the billions of dollars devoted to criminalizing migrants and refugees.
Every year, Canada spends $2.5 billion to police its borders. Canada Border Services Agency has sweeping powers of arrest and detention, with no independent civilian oversight to review policies or investigate misconduct.
Migrants and refugees are the only people in Canada who can be jailed without being charged with a criminal offense. Every year, Canada spends millions of dollars to detain thousands of migrants and refugees who are waiting to be processed or deported.
These are costs we can do without!
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both condemned Canada’s mistreatment of migrants. Detainees are treated like criminals: handcuffed, shackled, searched, subjected to solitary confinement, and restricted to small spaces with rigid routines. They are under constant surveillance, with little access to the outside world. There is no legal limit on detention, so migrants and refugees can be detained indefinitely.
Racists support such policies because they see the problem as too many people or the wrong kind of people. Socialists oppose these policies. We see the problem as an unjust social system, and our solution is worker solidarity.
Winning permanent resident status for everyone would lift 1.7 million people in Canada out of poverty, stop half a million people from being criminalized, and end brutal detentions and deportations. It would also add a billion dollars a year to government coffers.
Because employers pay undocumented workers cash under the table, when they pay them at all, they avoid remitting income tax. That’s a billion dollars a year going directly into the boss’s pocket instead of being available to fund public services.
While the capitalist class want more migrant labor, they oppose giving them permanent resident status because precarious labor is more profitable, and dividing workers makes them easier to manage.
The current public-pressure campaign will likely increase the numbers of people given permanent residency, and that matters! However, to win permanent residency status for all migrant workers, we must build a united, anti-racist workers’ movement that replaces nationalist barriers with the invitation, “You are welcome here!”
We are all one Race and should live together. We need to work for human security, to tackle the global problems of the climate crisis, pandemics, and nuclear weapons rather than spending billions on “national security.” The military is the greatest user of fossil fuels and the greatest contributor to Greenhouse Gases and, therefore, was excluded from Kyoto, Paris and COP26 protocols.
Thank you Susan Rosenthal for clearly setting out the facts on the benefits and need to treat immigrants as human beings and not as threats to a false idea of whiteness. The irony of those who lay hate upon those of other ethnicities or color in a land that once was a place where people roamed freely until being displaced and the land was stolen by an invading population should give Canadians pause. I must say, you help clear up some misconceptions for me about Canadian policy and actions.
As a citizen of the US, I grew up thinking that Canada was a far better place than my nation on many levels. It seems I was badly misinformed or that Canada once was but has chosen a path not unlike its neighbor to the South. It is rather shocking for me to learn that it seems to have followed the racist and jingoistic path that US history reeks from.
Again thank you for the education and pointing to a path of solidarity where all people can be treated with the dignity that all deserve.
Many Americans and many Canadians see Canada as a kinder, gentler capitalism. This is nonsense.
Like the US, Canada was founded on the theft of Indigenous land and the genocide of its original peoples. Despite nationalist fantasies, Canada has always been and continues to be a racist, imperialist nation.
Indigenous people form only 5 percent of Canada’s population, yet are more than 30 percent of federal prisoners. Forty-two percent of all female prisoners in federal custody are Indigenous women.
Only 7 percent of all children in Canada are Indigenous, yet fully half the children in foster care are Indigenous (90 percent in Manitoba). There are more Indigenous children in State care today than were incarcerated during Canada’s ‘residential school’ era.
While Canada did implement a universal medicare system, this was no gift from an enlightened ruling class; it was fought for and won by an upsurge in working-class struggle. (See The Fight for Medicare in Canada.)
Of course there are differences between Canada and the US, as with all nations. Nevertheless, workers in Canada have far more in common with workers in the US than they have with their Canadian rulers.
Thank you, Susan Rosenthal, for an absolutely brilliant article. I have rarely read anything that deals with so many vitally important issues in such a clear and comprehensive way. This should be essential reading, not just for socialists, but for everyone that believes we share a common humanity and hates social and economic inequalities.
Thanks, Susan! Excellent article !
I found your blog as I was researching the myth of scarcity and am amazed with your concise and factual argument for open borders. You’ve got me thinking. You’ve got me subscribed.