Though largely kept out of sight, migrant workers play a key role in every sector of Canada’s economy. Due to their temporary status, they are often kept in extremely precarious situations and denied access to unions or the ability to protest working conditions.

Extreme exploitation of migrant workers isn’t an accident or the result of individual misdeeds, argues Border and Rule author Harsha Walia—it’s the core aim of Canada’s whole system of immigration control and border security.

Her book, published earlier this year, features a globe-spanning web of analysis and examples of how borders divide workers and dehumanize migrants, how labour is cheapened by the border enforcement apparatus, and how movements have responded with vision, creativity and practical campaigns.

For close to two decades, Walia has also been organizing for migrant justice and in support of Indigenous sovereignty, among other movements. The Breach’s Dru Oja Jay interviewed her via video conference. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Don’t miss the accompanying video.

I wanted to start by asking, what do you mean when you say that borders are a key part of state formation — how does that play out in the Canadian context?

We often think about borders as just maps and marking territory. But the creation of nation states is bound up in the expansion of empire, whether that’s the British empire carving out its colonies, the French empire carving out its colonies, and what’s known as the “scramble for Africa” by colonial powers. That’s all fueled by colonialism and enslavement and indentureship. To think about borders today, we have to look back and think globally about how borders really were an attempt to solidify territorial expansion.

In the Canadian context, it is this whole history of the dispossession of Indigenous lands and migrant exclusion—everything about the border is tied up in that history.

So the solidification of the border in the Pacific Northwest, where I’m based, is very much rooted in the history of Chinese American exclusion in the 1800s. Some of the first federal legislation anywhere in Canada and the United States were laws of anti-Chinese exclusion, which connects to the control of labour.

All of these different processes of racial capitalism, of racial citizenship, of imperialism, of settler colonialism are deeply connected to how and why borders came to be. 

Migrant labourers work on a farm in Vittoria Ontario on a Sunday afternoon. Photo: Michael Swan

You were describing how borders are there to control labour and that’s one of their main functions. How does that function in Canada? 

Canada has perfected the model of the temporary foreign worker program as a key method in which the border works to control labour. That program has many names and many visas under it—the seasonal agricultural worker program, what used to be the live-in caregiver program and is now the caregiver program, and many other kinds of temporary permit visas. 

The Black Marxist tradition has put forward the idea that capitalism is always racial and that it doesn’t create a universal kind of class of wage labour—that capitalism always requires the segmentation of labour, and creates racist material structures to enforce it. What the border does is further segments labour.

So what we have is entire pools of cheapened labour, migrant labourers—workers, who, despite living in our communities, despite working alongside us, despite working in the farms and fields and homes and construction sites within Canada, are basically considered an entire other class of workers. In my view it really is a euphemism for third world workers, who operate as a pool of cheapened labour. 

I want to be very clear here that there is no such thing as cheap labour. Labour is cheapened due to manufactured conditions of vulnerability. And one of the primary ways in which migrant workers are kept precarious or kept vulnerable is through the threat of deportation. So when migrant workers may wish to organize or unionize or complain, or to stand up for their rights against their employers, employers can do what’s called blacklisting, which is to make it impossible for workers to return to work in Canada. Employers can terminate workers’ visas, which means they have not only been terminated, but they can then also be deported. They can withhold wages. They can force workers—as is very common—to work long, dangerous hours. 

In the case of caregivers, many of them live in the home of their employer. Many farm workers are forced to live in cramped conditions in the homes or in the fields of their employer. This is literally a form of segregation, right? Where you are segregated, and you are kept in cramped quarters. You are kept away from other people, you are subject to curfew.

In this way it’s also a carceral regime. So it’s not just your labour that’s controlled—the totality of your life is controlled. It’s not just a matter of a single bad employer or a few bad employers; it’s an entire state-sanctioned program that creates cheapened labour, where termination and deportation work in tandem to suppress people’s political and labour power when they’re migrant workers. 

On the global scale, Canada is the country that has perfected this model. A lot of times we think, “oh, we’re not as bad as the United States.” When I had written my first book and I was traveling the United States, I heard that constantly—like, “Canada’s so much more welcoming to refugees and I haven’t heard many stories of undocumented people in Canada.” For me, it’s so crucial for Canadians to understand that that is because Canada has perfected a model where immigrants are denied citizenship by essentially commodifying their labour and discarding that labour when it’s no longer needed. 

The vast majority of people who come to Canada today come under various kinds of temporary permits. That is the immigration model. It’s not the exception. This model of “managed migration” that Canada has perfected is deeply exploitative and it works perfectly in the interest of capital by segmenting labour, dividing labour. 

It also feeds perfectly into the kind of right-wing xenophobia where conservatives really pick up this refrain of Canadian nationalism that would appeal to Canadian workers. We see the weaponization and scapegoating of temporary migrant workers, pitting them against Canadian workers. In order for migrant workers to be pitted against so-called Canadian workers presupposes that migrants are not also workers and have nothing in common with Canadian workers, when in fact, of course they do. 

So the border regime works in the interests of capital and neoliberalism. It works in the interests of conservative nationalist ideologies, and in the interest of racist citizenship. 

Can you give us a survey of the different sectors of the economy that exploit temporary foreign workers or migrant workers?

Across this country, it would be hard to suggest that there is any sector that doesn’t rely on temporary foreign worker programs. There’s just so many. Quebec, for example, has its own provincial program. But for the past 50 years, the two most dominant ones that have just been consistent—that haven’t fluctuated with the economy—have been the caregiver program and the agriculture program. So domestic workers and farm workers have been pillars of this program despite all the changes and evolutions of the program since the ‘60s.

No unions beyond this point: the entrance to the Chittagong Export Processing Zone in Bangladesh. Photo: Roy Upham

In the book, you talk about outsourcing and insourcing. In the Canadian context, could you explain how that works, and how the border facilitates both of these? 

I think the logic nationalism—of “Canadian jobs for Canadian workers only,” and “let’s shut down the border to migrant workers because that will then lift up the wage floor”—misunderstands the role of the border. Many left nationalists in Canada—by which I mean major labour unions and others—I think misunderstand the role of the border. They think that the way to fight liberal globalization—this kind of free flow of capital—is for the state to take a more proactive role, particularly when it comes to migrant workers. 

The assumption here is that if we close the border to migrant workers, and to capital, then we will protect the Canadian worker. But I think what it fails to understand is that the border does not work in the interest of workers; what the border does is create different pools of workers. 

We know that in the ‘90s one of the major attacks on workers in the US and Canada was outsourcing, right? And what made outsourcing profitable was the whole history of forced impoverishment, imperialism, and ongoing economic warfare across the global south. In the North American context it was the implementation of NAFTA [now United States Mexico Canada Agreement, or USMCA], which remains the largest free trade agreement in the world. That agreement really blew open the Mexican economy and forced a wave of privatization, and created opportunities for outsourcing to multinational corporations. In Canada and the US, outsourcing manufacturing processes and many services to be carried out by pools of cheapened labour overseas really gutted what used to be the domestic industrial economy.

One of the ways in which we can understand the temporary foreign worker program, or migrant workers, is that it is the flip side of outsourcing. Insourcing and outsourcing work through the same mode, which is to rely on cheapened labour power—where again labour is cheapened through imperialism, racial capitalism and the differentiation of citizenship, right? Mexican workers who were forced to work for less in border assembly factories, for example, meant the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs in Canada. 

So jobs that cannot be outsourced are now insourced, but instead of accessing cheapened labour in the South, it is brought here on a temporary basis. This creates a pool of workers who, despite being in Canada, are treated in the ways capital treats so-called third world workers. 

Another way outsourcing and insourcing work the same way is union-busting. Globally, outsourcing also works through the creation of Export Processing Zone (EPZ)—set up by capital interests, by the World Bank, by the IMF through the 1980s, ‘90s, and 2000s as zones where taxes and regulations didn’t apply—to attract investment. And to this day, one of the requirements for EPZ—like garment factories in Bangladesh or in Haiti—is that employers must ensure that no unionization can take place. 

In the South, EPZs essentially act as an extra-national kind of bordered area where national laws just no longer apply. In the North, migrant workers are the same thing. Even though there are no laws prohibiting unionization in Canada, migrant workers in many sectors are effectively barred from unionization through the threat of deportation. Farm workers actually have had to go to court to fight for the right to unionize as migrant workers. So we see the border acting to carve out exceptions to what minimal labour protections might exist for workers.

Caregivers demonstrate in 2009. Photo: Tania Liu

Can you talk a little more about the experiences of migrant workers in home care, childcare, and other care work in Canada? 

In my view, migrant domestic workers have been the spear of class struggle in this country. Not coincidentally, they are consistently led by racialized migrant women, going back decades. We have the history of the seven Jamaican mothers who fought for domestic workers’ rights in Canada. Then in the ‘80s and ‘90s it was led by Filipino organizations like Migrante. 

But one of the things that Canada relies on—and capitalism relies on—to divide workers and weaken labour power, is continuously shifting the demographics of the workers these programs bring in. So if a community of migrant workers starts to organize, the migrant worker program will shift to begin favouring people from other countries who are not yet organized and who do not yet have those transnational networks of resistance. The visa program constantly morphs—it’s important because it’s the state reconfiguring itself in response to resistance. But I think it’s important to remember that this means resistance is working, too. 

I don’t want to suggest in any way that there’s a homogenous experience. Migrant workers have diverse experiences. I’d suggest people look into the work of MWAC, Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, who’ve been consistently putting out reports about the experiences of domestic workers. But if there is one unifying experience, it really is that people are bound to their employer. You’re often living in the home of your employer, you’re often working 16 hours a day. And you’re reliant on your employer for your visa. 

You have to rack up a certain amount of time before you can start to apply for permanent residency in Canada. So once your employer knows you’re getting closer to that time, the demands on you will of course increase, right? Because employers know that migrant workers will really do almost anything in order to not lose the potential of becoming a permanent resident in Canada.

So it’s an extreme position of vulnerability. People regularly report wage theft. MWAC, for instance, found that on average, migrant workers were ripped off of about $15,000 every single year. And for many migrant domestic workers, gendered sexual violence is also a reality, and that’s in the home of the employer, where you’re really vulnerable to various forms of sexual violence, sexual assault; there are many reported cases of rape. 

In the case of domestic workers, it’s really the heartbreaking reality of having to raise the children of mostly middle class, upper class, rich Canadians, while you are forcibly separated from your own family. Because as a migrant worker, you cannot bring your family to Canada until you become a permanent resident.

When we make claims about women being able to join the workforce, and about the supposed freedoms for some women in the wage economy, we have to always be thinking about who subsidizes that and under what conditions. Childcare is often provided by the exploited labour of migrant women workers, who themselves are not able to bring their families, and who are working under horrific conditions. 

I think those kinds of multiplying chains of care work need to be at the front of our minds when we’re thinking about, you know, who makes the economy. What is the work that makes all other work possible? Migrant women workers are really at the forefront of that.

You see the Liberals putting in place this $10 a day daycare plan—eventually. How does that fit into your analysis? 

Many migrant workers and migrant domestic workers have consistently said the temporary foreign worker program is basically a privatized system of care—that the state gets off the hook from providing elder care services, childcare services, daycare services, by having this program. Many migrant domestic workers have also been very clear that in their home countries, they’re actually accredited to be healthcare workers, to be childhood educators.

So rather than this incredibly precarious domestic work, we could be building up a public service that allows migrant workers to get residency upon arrival and to be part of a public sector workforce where they can unionize and access things that many of us take for granted. It’s inadequate, but it’s a starting point.

When we’re thinking about expanding care sectors publicly, we absolutely need to be thinking about how migrant workers are already doing that work and how they need to be at the forefront of such plans, in terms of who benefits from such work and who will be able to access the services. And we need to ensure that migrant workers who are able to come to Canada to work in public care sectors can bring their families with them.

Can we talk about the agricultural sector? What kinds of conditions do people face in these jobs?

Seasonal agricultural workers are working in the fields and farms of Canada across this country—in small farms, organic farms, large farms. They work many, many hours a day, and in some cases come for generations at a time. There are workers in Ontario who have been coming for three generations and are still not able to live in Canada permanently.

It also means not being able to bring one’s family, but only coming seasonally. Again, always the threat of being blacklisted. The collusion between embassies and employers and the Canadian state and recruiters—just this whole network that is organized to ensure that farm workers are working in Canada and when their labour is no longer needed that they leave Canada, and then return season after season. Migrant workers who work on farms and fields face really high rates of injuries, and fatalities as well. Justice for Migrant Workers has been continuously pushing for inquests into the deaths of migrant farm workers. 

The one thing that I think is quite striking when it comes to farm workers in particular has to do with medical deportation. Canada prides itself on universal healthcare, but we know that that’s not actually real, especially when it comes to Indigenous peoples in this country. The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls actually pointed out that healthcare is one of the pillars of ongoing gendered, colonial violence. 

Migrant farm workers provide another window into the shortcomings of universal health care. Medical deportation is the reality for farm workers. When they face an injury, or when they face a kind of serious injury that no longer allows them to work, Canada will—and the employer will—often basically terminate their visas, and they’re sent back. 

That’s called a medical deportation. When your labour can no longer be commodified—it’s a deeply capitalist, ableist idea—and when you are no longer fit to work, you’re no longer fit to stay. 

All of these social services that many Canadians take for granted essentially start to do the job of border guards, right? They start reporting people. You have nurses and doctors and social workers and teachers, all of whom start to do the role of gatekeeping by denying undocumented people the right to access those social services—or call border agents on them.

As I mentioned before, the reality is also lack of access to space. A lot of migrant workers will talk about just being constantly overwhelmed by being around people all the time when you’re on the job, but then even after you’re done work, sharing space with maybe six to 10 other people in a cramped room. Your employer is often also your landlord. You can’t report when your kitchen’s not working, or when something’s broken, and sometimes the employer will actually take it out of people’s paychecks.

The immensity and totality of, of control is, is hard to overstate when it comes to what migrant workers face. 

Can you talk a little bit more about insourcing and outsourcing when it comes to extraction outside of Canada’s borders and the effect that that has of displacing people—how that plays out?

Resource extraction is so pivotal to Canada’s settler political economy. There are currently so many struggles across these lands against resource extraction that is facilitated by the provinces, by the feds, by multinational corporations, where Indigenous nations have not given consent.

For example, in Wet’suwet’en territories there’s a struggle against the Coastal Gaslink pipeline. Ongoing struggles against Trans Mountain [Pipeline] Expansion in the Secwepemc Nation, against mining companies and the Ring of Fire in Ontario—just so many battles across these lands. The settler economy continues to dispossess Indigenous nations, continues to deny Indigenous jurisdiction—and that is what this economy is based on. 

Here, we have to point out the ways in which labour unions have failed to recognize that when Indigenous nations have put up blockades, they have failed to recognize those as picket lines—as a generative form of labour, and as a strike against capital.

The Canadian economy works by resource extraction globally; 75 per cent of the world’s mining companies are headquartered in Canada. There is no continent where a Canadian mining company or its subsidiary does not operate. And particularly in South and Central America, and Africa and Asia, Canadian mining companies are notorious for human rights violations, for environmental degradation, for paramilitary deaths of land defenders, for poisoning the water. 

I remember five, six years ago, organizing with a group working with the families of a number of undocumented construction workers. So there’s this shitty show called Border Security. It’s a kind of “Cops” kind of show where TV cameras are embedded with Canada Border Service Agency (CBSA) agents, and you know, you’re supposed to get this inside view of what CBSA officers do. It’s meant to basically glorify deportations, to glorify detentions and interrogations. It’s still on the air, but only re-runs because we managed to get the show off the air.

One of the episodes was of an immigration raid on a construction site where CBSA detained and basically rounded up a number of Central American construction workers, most of whom ended up being undocumented. Their families contacted us saying they were in detention.

Among the detained workers were two cousins. When we were talking to them on the phone in the detention centre, they told us that they had fled their home villages in Honduras because their uncle had been involved in a fight against a Canadian mining company, Gold Corp, as well as a number of other forces that were usurping their land in their village and their home community. And they said their uncle, who was involved in the community environmental committee, had been murdered in what they believed to be a targeted killing (though it has not been proven in court).

So they had fled, and over time had made their way into Canada. When they arrived, they asked how to seek safety in Canada. They were told—and rightfully so—you can’t tell a story about fleeing violence that involved a Canadian mining company. There was no way an immigration refugee judge would buy that story. There’s no way, because that would mean Canada would have to accept that you were fleeing persecution that Canada effectively caused. They were given the advice to go with the tired trope of narco trafficking, because that’s the story that’s palatable, right?

And so they told the story of fleeing drug traffickers and being afraid for their lives. But because that wasn’t actually their story, it was found to be not credible and they failed the refugee plan, never being able to tell the actual story of why they were seeking safety.

I think about that story a lot, because there are so many stories of people who are fleeing forms of violence in which Canada has outsourced that violence. Whether it’s resource extraction, or whether it’s so-called peacekeepers in Haiti and Somalia, who we know are not peacekeepers. They’re occupiers. If we’re thinking about people from Afghanistan, if we’re thinking about Palestinians. 

There are just so many places in this world where Canada is bound up in those violences, where that violence has been outsourced—and then the ways in which people who come to the borders are treated, the way in which they are detained, deported, discarded, or their labour commodified. But we are not often thinking about these kinds of global entanglements. Even though again, the insourcing and outsourcing of violence are so deeply connected to each other and are really mirrors of each other. 

For a while, migrant justice movements were using the slogan, “We are here because you were there.” What does that mean to you?

The slogan really illuminates an anti-colonial, anti-imperialist analysis to migrant justice. In many ways, migration is not only an individual act of self-determination where one person or one family is fleeing for safety. But it is embedded in these deeply asymmetrical relations of power. 

People move as a result of violence—most of the time, migration is actually forced on them. Conquest, climate change, capitalism: these are the real drivers, and saying “we are here because you were there” is a way to implicate the Canadian state and Canadian capital, and to refuse the politics of liberalism and generosity and humanitarianism. It’s a way to say, this is not about you just being generous. This is not about Justin Trudeau saying, “refugees welcome.” This is not about Canadian multiculturalism. This is squarely about reparations. This is squarely about redistribution. This is squarely about imperialism and its many forms. We need to be thinking about migrant justice in these expansive ways that refuses liberalism as a response.

What are the alternatives? Are there any existing models of other countries that are doing this better than Canada—similar kinds of countries? 

No, I don’t think so. And one of the reasons in Border and Rule that I wrote about so many places is that I really wanted to reject that kind of exceptionalism, wherever it may take root. Of it being somehow better somewhere than somewhere else. Because these forms of violence may look different, but they travel. For me, it’s not about countries doing it better because it is impossible.

If we understand that the border is bound up in racial capitalism, is bound up in imperialism, and in racist citizenship, then it really is about transforming the world, right? It really is about dismantling imperialism, such that the global North and the global South—and the South in the North, and the North in the South—cease to exist. That this differentiation no longer exists. It means that we’re not thinking about migrants constantly as commodities. It means that the social organization of difference—like anti-Indigenous anti-Black violence—that underwrites not only our economy, but our entire society and our entire structures, is dismantled.

And so there is no country that’s doing it better because that would mean that there is a non-capitalist, non-imperialist state that is out there. And there just isn’t, when it comes to Western countries, but really, you know, most nation states. 

So it’s impossible to think about a better immigration system, or a better order if you will, because abolishing the border means abolishing all systems of exploitation and control.

In Canada, what are the bright spots? How are movements responding to this state of affairs, and what do you see as potential horizons? 

I think really the hope is only in movements. I don’t think there’s anything that government is doing that’s hopeful. And if it has done positive things, it’s clearly in response to social movements. I think there’s a lot of incredible organizing going on across this country right now. Caregivers, for example, have won a number of significant victories when it comes to better working conditions.

This isn’t about some workers and not other workers. It really has to be about understanding this for all workers and bringing major unions alongside. I think about the work many movements have done to push back against the kind of “refugees welcome” narrative, to say “this isn’t about liberal market managerialism, we need to be thinking about the world.” And the work that has been done across this country also to move forward abolishing immigration detention, for example, and the links between the prison industrial complex and immigration detention.

It’s incredibly important that we have movements that articulate things like, “no detentions, no deportations, no human being is illegal,” movements that refuse the kind of dichotomy between so-called good and bad immigrants—this fight against people having to prove their worth. 

There’s incredible work done by communities as well, movements that are across communities, and multilingual, multiracial. And the work that so many movements and communities have done to fight their particular battles. Whether that’s the Haitian community in Quebec that has fought against the detention and mass incarceration. Whether it’s the hunger strikers at Laval, and the hunger strikers in Ontario. Whether it’s communities that were fighting in BC against immigration detention. And again, caregivers and farm workers across these lands.

All of that is so deeply helpful. Twenty years ago we were in a place where immigrants rights movements were fragmented, where people in immigration detention were the quote unquote bad immigrants that no one wanted to talk about. People wanted to really hold up the idea of a “model minority.” 

I think now we’re in a very different place, where people understand that this is fundamentally a struggle that is in line with and alongside abolition struggles, alongside decolonization struggles, alongside anti-imperialism struggles. I’m really hopeful about that, and about material victories and the constant organizing that is going on.

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