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Don't let anger at RBC stoke anti-migrant racism

Jesse McLaren

April 9, 2013

There’s an uproar over the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) using the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) to replace workers at reduced wages. But the legitimate anger at a multi-billion dollar company driving down wages is getting mixed up with confused anger that falsely counterposes “foreign workers” with “Canadians”—threatening to undermine the labour solidarity needed to fight racism and austerity.
According to NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, “To allow temporary foreign workers, through this type of strategem, to be brought in to deprive Canadians of their livelihood is grotesque.” The facebook group “Boycott the Royal Bank of Canada” has got over 6,500 “likes” in a few days, including comments calling to protect “our” jobs and to curb immigration and jobs for “foreign workers.”
“Foreigners” vs “Canadians”
What's really grotesque is that RBC (Canada's largest bank) posted records profits last year, and that in the midst of austerity they want to make even more profits off the backs of migrant workers. But the rhetoric of “foreign” vs “Canadian” actually distracts from the real issue, and instead silences indigenous people, stigmatizes migrants, and homogenizes everyone else—obscuring the real divisions between the 99% and the 1%
The only true “non-foreigners” in Canada are indigenous people, who have suffered the consequences of Canadian colonialism and austerity. According to Statistics Canada, the austerity agenda has had a sharper impact on aboriginal workers—who had a higher unemployment rate before the crisis and have experienced greater job losses since the crisis began.
As well as using colonialism to pursue profits, capitalism uses its arbitrary borders to deny status and increase the exploitation of migrant workers. Despite the propaganda of “border security,” its goal is not to keep migrants out of the country but to drive down their wages inside the country. The problem with temporary foreign workers is not that they are "foreign", but that they are denied status and only allowed to stay temporarily--under brutal conditions. The TFWP forces 300,000 migrant workers to work with no basic rights like the ability to quit or switch employers (which carries the threat of deportation), for 15 per cent less wages and no permanent status in Canada. As a result, migrant workers are forced to work under conditions that can be lethal—from the four construction workers who died on Christmas Even in 2009 when their scaffolding collapsed, to the 10 farm workers who died when the van they were crammed into crashed last year.
The TFWP is not a good system that's been mishandled by Harper or RBC, the current scandal is exactly what the program was designed for. Mulcair claims that "the temporary foreign worker program started as a way to provide labour in the fields where a lot of Canadians wouldn't work--like the picking of fruits and vegetables," but "it's now more akin to a situation where the person serving you in a Tim Hortons is likely to be a temporary foreign worker." This implies it's fine to exploit migrant workers in the fields as long as you don't see them in the cities. But last year, four migrant workers at a Tim Horton's in BC filed a human rights complaint after experiencing racist abuse, a doubling of rent, and passport confiscation; two were fired and deported for complaining.
According to the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), in their 2011 Report on the Status of Migrant Workers in Canada, the TFWP has aways been a “model of brutality.” The UCFW is the largest private sector union in Canada and has the union membership with the highest percentage of migrant workers. According to According to Naveen Mehta, UCFW Canada’s general counsel and director of human rights:
“In some sectors, there may be shortages of Canadian workers able to fill positions but typically, unless they are working in a union environment, the workers brought in to do the work are grossly exploited and often treated like indentured servants. Any talk by Harper and his government to fix this has been just talk. The reality is they have engineered a program that leads to a low wage economy, where the rights of both domestic and foreign workers are trashed to bolster the corporate bottom line.”
So “foreign workers” are not depriving “Canadians” of their livelihood. Canadian corporations like RBC are using racism to exploit migrant workers, drive down wages of non-migrant workers, and then scapegoat migrants for it. The problem is not “foreign workers” or the “foreign companies” who provide them, it's the Canadian state's TFWP that allows Canadian corporations to deny migrant workers status and equal wages--driven by the global system of exploitation and oppression.
Capitalism, exploitation and oppression
Capitalism is based on exploitation, with bosses paying workers less than the wealth they’ve produced. Capitalists make more profits if they can increase the rate of exploitation—through the sexist denial of pay equity, the racist use of lower wages for migrant workers, the increasing use of part-time jobs that don’t include benefits, cuts to wages and benefits, layoffs (disproportionately affecting oppressed groups) and increased pressure for remaining workers to increase productivity.
Because unions provide some protection against exploitation—through better wages and conditions—and because unions have been part of the fight for pay equity and rights for migrant workers, they are the subject of coordinated attack by the state, corporations and the media. The latest is the “right to work” campaign trying to smash unions. In times of economic crisis, the competitive pressure for the 1% to increase exploitation goes into overdrive.
Oppression sharpens exploitation and divides the 99%—making non-migrant workers think they have more in common with the Canadian 1% than their migrant sisters and brothers. This has been a favourite tool of the 1% since the emergence of capitalism—as Karl Marx wrote in 1870:
“Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A.. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland. This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.”
This classic capitalist scapegoating continues. During his run for Toronto mayor in 2010, Rob Ford claimed that “We can't even deal with the 2.5 million people in this city. It's more important that we take care of the people now before we start bringing in more.” During his run for Ontario premier in 2011, Tim Hudak claimed Dalton McGuinty was pandering to “foreign workers.” During the federal election of 2011, Harper ran ads labeling Tamil refugees as criminals, and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has gone on a rampage against so-called “bogus refugees,” including vicious cuts to refugee healthcare. The scapegoating of migrants is even more dangerous in deeper economic crises like Greece, where the fascist party Golden Dawn organizes violent attacks against migrants, and we have the horrid history of the 1930s to remind ourselves where this can lead.
Solidarity and resistance
In Greece, fighting the fascist attacks on migrants is central to strengthening the fight against austerity. Fortunately Hudak’s racist election campaign backfired, and despite Ford’s rants Toronto has declared itself a sanctuary city—a victory for migrant justice organizing. The magnificent Idle No More movement has helped undermine Canadian nationalism, clarify that Canada has an ongoing history of colonialism, and link indigenous and non-indigenous people in struggle.
We need to apply these lessons to build solidarity with migrant workers as part of the fight against austerity. Calls to ban “foreign workers” from “Canadian jobs” will do nothing to improve the livelihood of the 99%; it will make it worse, by silencing indigenous sovereignty, increasing anti-migrant racism and undermining the solidarity necessary to build a united labour movement. We need to oppose RBC not because they’re hiring “foreign workers” but because they’re exploiting them—and using this exploitation to drive down wages and increase their profits. The only way to stop this is to guarantee status and equal pay for migrant workers, as part of the fight against racism and austerity. 
As UFCW says, “UFCW Canada and our allies continue to advocate for immediate permanent residency and a path to citizenship for all workers entering Canada. Unionization and permanent residency remain the only viable solutions that begin to address the crisis of the deplorable and mean hearted working and living conditions that migrant workers are subjected to."
Capitalism and austerity has no borders, and neither should solidarity and resistance. We need to support indigenous sovereignty and migrant justice, as part of a united global struggle of the 99% against the 1%. Workers of the word, unite.
If you like this article, register today for Marxism 2013: Revolution In Our Time, a weekend long conference of ideas to change the world. Sessions include "Solidarity against austerity: lessons from the front lines,", "Indigenous resistance, Idle No More and the fight against Harper,", "the origins of racism," and "austerity and scapegoating: resisting Kenney's attacks on refugees."

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