New Socialist Webzine

Solidarity or Exclusion? British Columbia Unions and Chinese Mineworkers

By David Camfield

It's obvious why HD Mining is hiring workers in China to work at the Murray River Coal Project in Northern BC. Because they are admitted to Canada on work visas under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), the company can pay them a lot less than it would have to pay Canadian citizens or permanent residents.

The owners of HD Mining are no doubt thankful that the Tory federal government has been expanding the TFWP, allowing employers in more sectors to bring in migrant workers. This move by Harper & Co. is part of their broader austerity agenda, which includes lowering wages and increasing insecurity among working people.

Officials from the International Union of Operating Engineers and the Construction and Specialized Workers' Union (CSWU) have gone to court to try to cancel the company's authorization to employ Temporary Foreign Workers (TFWs). Their rationale is clear. When interviewed on the CBC Radio One program As It Happens on November 21, Mark Olsen, the President of the Bargaining Council of BC Building Trade Unions, argued that Canadian workers should get preference for these mining jobs and that the Chinese workers already in BC should be sent home.

Officials of District Three of the United Steelworkers have put out a leaflet with the same message. Titled "BC Jobs for BC Workers," it proclaims "Stop the sellout of our province." The leaflet goes on to ask, "Is this type of future we want for our country? A future where low-paid foreign workers with no rights or protection fill jobs that drive down Canadian standards and allow larger profits for already profitable mining companies?"

This kind of response to the hiring of migrant workers appeals to many people in Canada.  Unemployment and the fear of having to look for a job when decent work is getting harder to find are on the minds of many. But this response is dead wrong. It's also an echo of the racist hostility to Chinese workers that was rampant among workers in BC a century ago.

Echoes of a Racist History

In 1891 the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council (made up of craft unions, the vast majority of whose members were white male skilled workers) called for a ban on Chinese immigration. This demand for exclusion was widely supported among white people in BC in the early 20th century. It fuelled the racist hatred that exploded in the 1907 riots in BC against South Asian and East Asian immigrants.

Then, as now, the Chinese workers in question were denied citizenship rights by the state and super-exploited by employers. Then, as now, the demand to exclude migrant workers rested on the assumption that some people (British subjects then, Canadian citizens or permanent residents now) are more entitled to jobs than others (Chinese migrants).

This stance pits workers who happen to have been born in different countries against each other. Yes, people in Canada need paid work to support themselves. But so do people in China. Is it any surprise that some Chinese workers are willing to leave their homes and travel thousands of kilometres to work in a remote area of BC for wages that are higher than they would make in China? Treating some people as less deserving of jobs than others simply because they don't hold Canadian passports devalues their lives. It's an invitation to immigrant-bashing and racism.

People who say they're against employers bringing in TFWs because it drives down wages and benefits, worsens working conditions and boosts corporate profits are actually writing the recipe for that very result. The federal government isn't going to curtail the TFWP -- many bosses love it. Nationalist campaigns against the hiring of migrant workers will only reinforce divisions between citizens and non-citizens and fan the flames of racism. Employers will celebrate the fact that workers are fighting each other.

"Status for All"

Instead of trying to exclude Chinese workers, BC unions should be thinking about how to build links of solidarity with them. That's what socialists and other industrial union activists in BC did a century ago, challenging the racism of the craft unions.

But we don't have to look back a hundred years to see what needs to be done. In 2006, SNC Lavalin and SELI Canada brought in Latin American workers under the TFWP to work on the Canada Line extension of Vancouver's Skytrain light rail service and paid them less than TFWs from Europe. The CSWU organized the workers, took their case to the BC Human Rights Tribunal and won. There are plenty of Mandarin-speaking activists in BC who could be part of an innovative initiative to reach out to miners from China.

Growing numbers of employers are turning to the TFWP to get workers who are less expensive and easier to control precisely because they're not citizens or permanent residents. Unions face the same choice they did a century ago: "Exclusion or Solidarity?" Trying to exclude migrant workers did nothing to help workers in Canada challenge employers and pro-employer governments in the early 20th century. It won't do any better this time.

The alternative to calling for exclusion is to address the needs of all workers, regardless of citizenship status. A good starting point for an alternative approach rooted in solidarity is to demand "Status for all" (giving permanent resident status to migrants as soon as they arrive). This should be linked to a demand for the creation of well-paid, secure jobs doing work that reduces greenhouse gas emissions (not jobs in coal mines!) .Such a demand could bring together union, migrant justice and environmental activists.

Let's hope that some delegates on the floor at the BC Federation of Labour convention next week will challenge exclusion and argue for this kind of alternative.

David Camfield is an editor of New Socialist Webzine and author of Canadian Labour in Crisis: Reinventing the Workers' Movement.


0 #15 Keith Worsley 2012-12-11 01:31
Dear David,

Your ideas are so very noble. However, back here in the real world the people want to make real progress. Instead of dreaming about international solidarity, which the workers of China aren't asking you for, why don't we work to remove the provisions for TFWs. The Chinese are laughing at the weakness of Canadians. The labour movement will continue to be decimated until real workers are marching in the streets and not writing this kind of weak pacifist tripe. These workers will never stand up to their bosses because at the end of the day their families are back home and vulnerable. Bleeding heart twerps like you who take money from labour and refuse to demand practical solutions.
International Solidarity"?!?! ?! Grow up! Canadians need to fight for Canadians. I don't know if you noticed but there is a whole ugly world out there full of people to take your job, your house, your government. You are an intellectual traitor.
+1 #14 David Camfield 2012-12-01 22:03
Brian, I agree about the BC Fed convention (and Dave's article

My hope was only that some dissenting delegates would challenge exclusion.

There's a report on a panel discussion held one evening (not part of the convention sessions) here
+2 #13 Brian 2012-11-27 08:09

The one thing I'm not sure about is the last bit of the article referring to the BC Fed convention. Dave Bleakney has written an excellent article about labour conventions over at briarpatch - if the BC Fed is anything like many other labour conventions, it will be more about theatrics than serious debate.

And, even if delegates are able to challenge this, it seems like they will have a tough fight ahead of them. The best efforts of myself and other delegates to encourage the MFL to adopt progressive policies on international student tuition fees were met with overwhelming rejection. And then to add insult to injury, raucous applause for the defeat of the resolution.
0 #12 Brian 2012-11-27 08:00
Good article, David

I think you hit on something really important in comment #8 there. I know it's something I've dealt with in trying to advocate for members of my local who are international students.

For example, international students contribute over $75 million to the economy of Manitoba through their economic activity and in doing valuable research. They come to Canada already well-educated (with high school, and many come with some university education already). They pay sales taxes and income taxes (if they can even get a job - there are a lot of restrictions preventing them from working off-campus). Yet, for some reason having to do with how the state structures citizenship and residency, and with some racist and nativist attitudes thrown in, international students are considered "outsiders" and this makes it somehow okay to charge them absurdly high and ever-increasing tuition fees
+2 #11 JE Ehrhoff 2012-11-26 00:52
I really fail to see how wanting the opportunity for Canadians (of any race) to be able to obtain employment extracting our resources is racist. If you're going to spin it that way then how does a company exclusively hiring a Chinese workforce look to you? How is that not racist, but criticising the company for overlooking Canadians of any race racist?

We don't live in a world of internationally free labour movement. If you're looking at this on an international scale, then fair terms of employment for Chinese citizens will only be achieved when the people of China rise up and demand it themselves, not from Canadian meddling.
-2 #10 Lama Figero 2012-11-25 22:05
This does not really make sense. You seek 'solidarity' with whom? With works worldwide? Why not with business owners locally?

You seek no division...yet seem to divide the world into 'workers' and 'business owners'. This seems extremely odd.

Your proposal seems to also suggest that there should be no divide between union and non-union workers. Why indeed, the union worker and those tht cross the picket line should 'unite' as one...forget about requiring the corporation or employer to respect union rights.

Seems like a front for big business to me.
0 #9 Old Mole 2012-11-24 17:13
Throughout history, a key question for labour movements has been whether they will be narrowly protectionist (defending "their" members) or whether they will organize for global justice. John Harrison suggests the former when he writes, "Given high unemployment and economic decline in rural communities of BC, it is obviously right for unions to advocate for the rights of their members. Unions here are not mandated, ie funded by their members, to advocate for employment of chinese workers." This reflects a trade unionism built not on international solidarity but on favouring "Canadian" jobs over "Chinese" ones. History has demonstrated who wins in that scenario: the employers. Unions abandon international solidarity at their own peril.
+1 #8 David Camfield 2012-11-24 15:30
What's the difference between this case and the hiring of TFWs? In both cases bosses are hiring some workers rather than others because some are cheaper and easier to control. The response should be the same: solidarity, not exclusion.

Arguing that people already living in Canada should be given priority over migrant workers for job openings in Canada amounts to calling for exclusion. It treats some people as more deserving than others simply because the state has given them citizenship or permanent resident status.

Why is this assumption so widespread? Because we live in a world organized into nation-states, and our "common sense" ideas about who deserves to have what within a country are shaped by that reality.

Yes, high unemployment in rural BC is a real problem. It's essential to fight for good jobs in those regions. But not by pitting workers already in Canada against migrant workers.
0 #7 David Camfield 2012-11-24 15:25
Bosses undoubtedly hire TFWs in order to drive down wages, working conditions and safety standards. The question is how to respond.

Let's look at another attack on wages, conditions and safety. In 2002-2003, BC health care employers contracted out the jobs of thousands of members of the Hospital Employees Union (HEU). These workers were replaced with others employed by private firms who were paid as much as 44% less per hour, with few or no benefits. Laid-off HEU members were not allowed to apply for jobs with these firms.

HEU didn't respond by fighting for its members whose jobs had been lost to displace the people hired by the private contractors. It didn't try to exclude them. On the contrary: HEU encouraged the new workers to join HEU and fight for higher wages, benefits and rights at work.
+5 #6 KB Pollock 2012-11-24 07:04
Please be clear: Steelworkers have gone out of our way to make it clear that we have no quarrel with Chinese workers nor are we opposed to immigration.

But the TFWP has nothing to do with immigration and everything to do with exploitation of vulnerable Chinese workers who have no labour, citizenship or immigration rights on one hand and on the other, undermining domestic wages, working conditions and safety standards on the other.

Surely this is not the Canada we want: where heavily-exploit ed, virtually rightless workers come to this country just long enough to dig our coal, generating resources and profits for Chinese companies at the same time that unemployed Canadians sit at home.

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