Dr. Adam Perry joined the On the Move Partnership in 2015 as an affiliated post-doctoral fellow. He holds a PhD in Adult Education and Community Development from the University of Toronto, and is currently undertaking SSHRC-funded post-doctoral research in the School of Social Work at McGill University. His research examines the dynamics of internal migration among ‘low-skilled’ temporary foreign workers (TFWs) in Canada. Through interviews with workers and worker advocates, Adam’s work documents the ways in which these workers tackle the complex processes of inter-provincial relocation in spite of precarious legal status.
Q: Your post-doctoral research focuses on inter-provincial migration among ‘low-skilled’ temporary foreign workers (TFWs) in Canada. What are some of the main motivations for those low-skilled TFWs engaged in inter-provincial migration, and what are some of the biggest challenges they face?
A: I have been working with workers involved with Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) in Southwestern Ontario as a researcher and as an advocate since 2003. It wasn’t until 2011 that I encountered the phenomenon of workers taking the decision to leave Ontario to try their luck in other provinces. Around 2009 many ‘low-skilled’ TFWs were coming to Ontario to work in primary agriculture and related industries. Unlike the SAWP workers from Mexico and the Caribbean with whom I had been working, these newer workers, mostly from the Philippines and Thailand, were subject to the ‘4 in and 4 out’ rule implemented by the federal government in 2011, thus limiting the amount of time they could legally spend in the country.
In Leamington, Ontario, the town where I was conducting my doctoral research with SAWP workers from Mexico, I encountered one worker from the Philippines who had heard, through his informal networks of friends and family, of opportunities in the hospitality industry in Northeastern British Colombia. He had heard that if he got a job as a hotel attendant in the region, he could bypass the ‘4-in and 4-out rule’ and potentially achieve permanent residency through the BC Provincial Nominee Program. He immediately packed his bags and bought a one-way plane ticket to Dawson Creek, BC. He is still living in BC, is currently a permanent resident, and in the past few months has successfully sponsored his family. If he had stayed in Ontario he would have been deported in 2015.
At the time, in 2011, word spread quickly throughout Leamington that employers were nominating TFWs for permanent residency in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. Many workers quit their jobs in Ontario agriculture to take a chance out west as hotel room attendants, kitchen helpers, fast-food counter attendants, and industrial butchers. This westward movement of migrant workers from Ontario is the phenomenon that inspired my post-doctoral research project. Over the course of my fieldwork, I have had the opportunity to speak to over 30 TFWs who have moved inter-provincially.
To respond to your question of motivation, one clear motivating factor is the desire to become a permanent resident in Canada. Workers travel between provinces chasing the elusive and ever-changing provincial and territorial nominee programs. The challenges are enormous. There are very few pathways to permanence for ‘low-skilled’ TFWs. Workers need to find the perfect job, with the perfect employer, in a region where they can be nominated through a provincial or territorial nominee program. Even under the best of circumstances, there are a lot of opportunities for a nomination application to go off the rails, such as the unpredictability of unscrupulous employers, the need to demonstrate language proficiency, and strict guidelines for medical admissibility. The ‘4-in and 4-out rule’ also remains a problem when combined with the length of time it may take to have a nomination approved. Many workers effectively ‘time out’ and find themselves in an even more precarious position with regard to their immigration status. That said, many workers feel they have very little to lose since they are facing eventual deportation anyway, and as such the potential rewards outweigh the potential risks.
Q: Open work permits for TFWs have become a bit of a hot-button issue in Canada in recent months, as there has been a great deal of media coverage detailing how the Fort McMurray wildfires have left displaced TFWs vulnerable to deportation. Open work permits would obviously make inter-provincial migration somewhat easier for TFWs. Are there other policy changes that you think would help?
A: Open work permits would most definitely provide workers with more control over their own labour mobility. I think more than anything else, though, it is the concept of ‘temporariness’ that needs to change. The purpose of the ‘4-in and 4-out’ rule, for example, is to entrench the temporariness of workers who participate in Canada’s TFW program. Apart from employer-specific work permits, it is the one policy that likely has the most negative impact on workers’ lives in Canada. Eliminating this rule would be a good first step toward improving the lives of workers. Ultimately however, if we are to take seriously the rights and desires of migrant workers in Canada, we need to develop policies that recognize the value that TFWs bring to Canadian society. That means at the very least offering more access and clearer pathways to permanent residency, and ultimately status on arrival.
Q: If you were contacted tomorrow by a TFW expressing interest in moving from one Canadian province to another, what advice would you offer to him or her?
A: This is a very good question. I think workers need to be aware of the risks involved before undertaking any such move. I would inform this person that they should have a very clear plan of action for achieving their ultimate goal of permanent residency. I would advise them to find out as much about provincial immigration policy as possible in the province to which they are moving, and to find out if their potential employer is well informed as to how to nominate a worker. I would advise them that they should be clear about the amount of time they expect the nomination process to take (this will differ province to province), and to be absolutely sure that their potential employer is willing to do the paperwork involved in transferring their work permit, in applying for a Labour Market Impact Assessment, and going through with the nomination process. I would suggest that they seek advice from someone who has gone through the process in the province to which they wish to move, as well as in the same sector and same type of job. I would also suggest that they connect with advocacy groups, such as Migrante Alberta, on arrival in the province where they are headed, and to get in touch with a well-respected settlement agency, if at all possible. I have spoken to a lot of workers who have made it work, so I think that I would encourage them to take the risk, but to hit the ground running with as much information as possible.
Q: What was the most interesting, surprising, or unexpected thing that your research taught you about the life experiences of TFWs in Canada?
A: Oddly enough, since the majority of TFW inter-provincial movement is occurring in Canada’s westernmost provinces, I decided to include Montreal as a research site. Unlike in places like Edmonton and Calgary, advocates in Montreal had little experience helping workers to move inter-provincially. However, it turned out that some of my most interesting interviews with workers came from Quebec. The majority of workers that I interviewed in Quebec were primary agricultural workers from Guatemala. Unlike workers that I interviewed from Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and BC, these workers had no interest in pursuing a path to permanent residency. These workers were instead performing a particular worker subjectivity that Tanya Basok and Daniele Belanger have referred to in a recent article as a “subjectivity of escape”. Unlike workers I spoke to who were attempting to move toward permanency, these workers had left their place of work because they were escaping particularly exploitative working and living conditions. Given that there is a growing support network for Guatemalan workers in Montreal, all of the Guatemalan workers to whom I spoke considered Montreal to be a desired destination, if only temporarily. These workers had arrived in Montreal from as far away as Ontario and Alberta, and treated the city as a launching pad for planning their next steps. Many of these workers have fallen ‘out of status’ and, given the difficulty of finding work as an ‘undocumented migrant’, many of the folks with whom I spoke decided to illegally cross into the United States to look for work.
Q: What was your favorite aspect of conducting interviews with TFWs and worker advocates? What was the most difficult aspect?
A: Definitely the best aspect of conducting interviews with workers was encountering workers who had found a way to make their dreams come true, against all the odds. The most difficult aspect of conducting interviews with workers was outreach. Since I was often looking for workers who had left one place in order to go somewhere else, whenever I arrived in one place, such as Edmonton or Montreal, one of the first questions that I asked folks was if they knew of someone who had left. Inevitably, that meant that I would have to then find creative ways of getting in touch with people who had fallen off the radar.
Q: What direction do you think your research will take in the future? Knowing what you now know, what questions would you most like to ask?
A: As I am just coming out of the field, it is probably still too early to be thinking of next projects. That said, during my fieldwork I encountered some low-wage workers with open work permits obtained through the Post-Graduation Work Permit Program. With 25% of all TFWP work permit holders coming from the post-grad program at the end of 2015, this is currently the largest source of temporary foreign workers in the country. This type of work permit can be valid for up to three years, and many of these workers end up working in precarious and low-wage jobs, such as room attendants, fast food restaurant jobs, and janitorial work. Many of these workers seem to be travelling across the country to find work, often as a result of industry job fairs that target this population. To my knowledge, very little research has been done to better understand the experiences and motivation of students who participate in this program. While I have yet to develop clear research questions, at the moment I am thinking that exploring this area could provide an important piece to Canada’s TFW puzzle.