The trilemma of Canadian migrant worker policy: Facilitating employer access while protecting the Canadian labour market and addressing migrant worker exploitation

Sarah Marsden, Eric Tucker, Leah F. Vosko

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Canada’s use of migrant labour continues to increase, and rights shortfalls, exploitation, and worker abuse within migrant labour programs have been extensively documented. Migrant workers, and the thrust of migrant work policy itself, are represented in variable and sometimes inconsistent ways in policy and popular discourse: sometimes, migrant workers are framed as deserving of protection, sometimes as an outside force threatening jobs for Canadians, and sometimes as the solution to intractable labour shortages. In this chapter, we put some order to these threads and elaborate on their development over time. Specifically, we examine discourse in media, policy, and legislative and regulatory changes surrounding migrant worker policy since 2005 and identify three main “vectors” - or directional forces - that play a role in shaping temporary labour migration policy. What we call the “protectivist” vector is that in which the need to protect migrant workers’ rights is highlighted, whereas in the “protectionist” vector it is the labour market that is framed as needing protection from the perceived effects of migrant worker participation. The third vector is that of “access, " by which we refer to and emphasis on employers’ demands for migrant labour on terms that suit employers’ needs. We trace the ebb and flow of these vectors from 2005 to 2019, identifying four distinct stages in the discourse surrounding migrant workers, namely 1) the expansion of the migrant worker program between 2005 and 2008, in which employer access was dominant; 2) increasing importance of protectivism between 2008 and 2012 concurrently with the maintenance of employer access; 3) between 2012 and 2016, scrutiny of migrant worker programs through both protectivism and protectionism, including strengthened enforcement measures aimed at employers that limited access, but alongside growth in less-regulated subsets of migrant workers, and; 4) between 2016 and 2019, the prevalence of protectionism in which employer access is still fairly well accommodated. We conclude that even while the protectivist vector may at times limit employer access, it is an incidental feature rather than a cardinal component of labour migration policy, while both protectionism and employer access function as fundamental drivers through the stages we identify.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationResearch Handbook on the Law and Politics of Migration
PublisherEdward Elgar Publishing Ltd.
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9781789902266
ISBN (Print)9781789902259
StatePublished - Jan 1 2021
Externally publishedYes


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