Last week, Premier Blaine Higgs announced that New Brunswick would no longer accept migrant workers in the province. In making the announcement, he argued that he was “protecting New Brunswickers” from migrant workers.
In fact, it is migrant workers who protect New Brunswickers. They contribute to our province’s taxes, they participate in our local economies, they help fund the social safety net that we take for granted but cannot access themselves. These workers leave their family behind for months at a time, missing birthdays and anniversaries to harvest crops on a foreign farm.
There are those who argue that this is a public health decision, pure and simple. But when pressed for reasons why he made this decision, it became clear that there was no public health evidence supporting the Premier. Even Dr. Jennifer Russell, the Chief Medical Officer of Health, when asked, would not say that she recommended this decision. After all, it is clear that migrant workers can self-quarantine for 14 days just as effectively as anyone else and meet public health standards to prevent the spread of the pandemic. Indeed, that is the approach being taken in PEI, and is recommended by the federal government.
So why make such a decision? It’s simple. It is easy to shut the door on migrant workers. Migrant workers are rarely unionized, seldom paid living wages, and they frequently live and work in difficult conditions. And of course, “blaming the immigrant” is the oldest trick in the cynical political playbook. Isn’t that what “protecting New Brunswickers” from migrant workers is?
This decision, whether the Premier knows it or not, plays into xenophobic narratives suggesting that migrants carry disease. It gives licence to those who want the borders closed to migrants completely.
There are also those who argue that banning Temporary Foreign Workers is the right decision because the program is fundamentally exploitative. Yes, the Temporary Foreign Worker Program is exploitative. Closed work permits force migrant workers to work for the same employer or else face deportation. Workers around the world fall prey to unscrupulous consultants who charge exorbitant sums of money and offer false promises of permanent residence in Canada through this program. Many workers are frequently exposed to overcrowded living quarters, abusive working conditions because of work permits tied to employers, and the inability to unionize in some jurisdictions.
But banning migrant workers penalizes the workers for participating in a program that we designed to be exploitative.
Let’s fix the program instead, and treat migrant workers with respect. Migrant workers deserve permanent residence, not precarity. They deserve a pathway to citizenship, not a second class existence as disposable labour.
Over 170 individuals and organizations, including farmers, signed an open letter calling on the Premier to reverse his decision and to support regularization. “When policies such as these are instituted, it only serves to increase incidences of racism and xenophobia, further marginalizing all migrant communities – including those who arrive temporarily and those who stay and call New Brunswick home,” these signatories state.
It is past time we respected the human rights of migrant workers. They are not disposable labour, but human beings with human rights. We need our provincial and federal governments to recognize that migrant workers have the right to choose for whom they wish to work and the right to be treated with dignity.
The Premier must reverse this ban immediately and ensure migrant workers get the support they need.
Aditya Rao is a member of No One Is Illegal-Fredericton.