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UBC Theses and Dissertations

International labor migration : a comparative perspective on Canadian policy Annett, Kevin Daniel


More than twenty million human beings are pursuing work in foreign lands in the 1980's, the majority of them unskilled men or families in search of higher wages. These migrant workers are the most vulnerable souls among us, for they lack legal status in a world where the statusless are immediate victims. Nevertheless, both developing and mature economies have relied on these mobile workers as a cheap labor source, and have used and discarded migrants according to economic and political expediency. From the Mexican bracero smuggled illegally into the United States to the massive foreign workforce of Saudi Arabia, migrants have been imported with impunity because of their low wage utility, but universally have been kept in a temporary, stateless condition with few guaranteed rights. Canada is an exception to this global trend, and this fact is the subject of my thesis. Although facing the same general economic compulsions of other nations, especially the competitive need to lower its costs of production, Canada has imported few migrant workers since the 1950's, and has pursued a policy of settling immigrants as residents rather than maintaining a temporary foreign workforce. The reasons for this constitute the central problem of my thesis. Being a global and systemic phenomenon, labor migration must be studied in a comparative manner. This is particularly true when one considers the variety of cultural and policy responses which attend the arrival of migrant workers in different countries. Accordingly, my investigation of the reasons for Canada's policy approach to migrant labor begins with a consideration of the nature and evolution of policy responses of other nations to migrants. Such a comparative analytical method provides a more complete profile of migratory labor as well as a yardstick against which the Canadian experience can be contrasted. My general conclusions are the result of a comparative and historical appreciation of labor migration to Canada. A settlement tradition, a small and fluctuating labor market, and a political and cultural aversion to temporary labor migration have combined to create Canada's notably durable policy approach to migrant workers since World War II; one which has consciously limited the size of the non-settled foreign worker population despite the economic benefits of cheap migrant labor. My study has also illuminated the almost universally narrow policy approach of governments to migrant workers, who initially are conceived of in purely economic terms without regard to their long-term social impact. Reflective of immediate political and economic interests, public policy is inherently adaptive and shifting, and accordingly governments have lacked a broad perspective on both migrant workers and the social-economic problems which engender their importation. My final observation is one which recognizes the indivisibility of moral and "practical" issues regarding migrant workers. The latter are people, not a lifeless economic category, and are victims of global inequalities which prompt migration abroad. Unfortunately, the humanity of the migrant is the first reality ignored by policy-makers and employers. It has been convenient for powerful men to keep migrants stateless and devoid of rights so as to better exploit their labor. In this way, the modern migrant resembles the Holocaust era Jew who first had to be deprived of his and her nationality before mass annihalation was possible. The twentieth century is a graphic testament to the fact that the statusless person is wholly at the mercy of others. Thus, for moral and analytical reasons, ultimate answers to the problems created by migrating populations are not possible without addressing global rather than purely national conditions, and without replacing pragmatic self-interest with empathic understanding.

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