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From the archives

Paper Rout

Postmedia in the gutter

Past Trauma

Richard Wagamese and an Indigenous literary resurgence

Family Pride

Profiles in gay life

Labour Forced

Working away from home

Amanda Perry

Essential Work, Disposable Workers: Migration, Capitalism and Class

Mostafa Henaway

Fernwood Publishing

320 pages, softcover and ebook

Over the past year, support for immigration has fallen sharply in Canada, as a spike in the number of temporary residents collides with rising housing costs. Debates about the country’s “hosting capacity”— already common in Quebec, where immigration is also frequently tied to the decline of French — have spread from coast to coast to coast. But amid the duelling op‑eds about how many and what kind of newcomers are worth having, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. Why are so many people arriving here in the first place, and who benefits from systems that keep their lives precarious?

Mostafa Henaway’s Essential Work, Disposable Workers provides a structural corrective that situates Canada within an international context of labour mobility and exploitation. A long-time organizer with Montreal’s Immigrant Workers Centre and an academic researcher at Concordia University, Henaway combines local examples with an expansive frame. He begins with profiles of the Philippines, Mexico, Guinea, and Egypt, all countries that have large numbers of citizens employed abroad in low-status positions. These case studies add heft to his condemnation of Canada’s two-tiered immigration system, in which foreigners considered who are highly skilled have access to permanent residency while others are condemned to limited-term visas. As a result, blue-collar workers from the global South are caught in patterns of “circular migration,” moving back and forth between their home countries and their places of employment, denied the right to settle where they work despite being in demand.

Hanging on to jobs by a thread.

Karsten Petrat

Henaway is an avowed leftist, which makes some of his analysis predictable. He blames underdevelopment in the global South on “the implementation of neoliberal policies,” for example, even though supposedly socialist states like Venezuela have also faced economic collapse and mass exoduses. More convincing is his description of how some governments deliberately export workers and rely on their remittances to make up for gaps in social services. In such cases, migration has become “increasingly necessary for entire states and not just the well-being of individual households.” Local elites benefit from arrangements that keep their countries locked in patterns of dependency, even as migrants see their families torn apart. The conditions within Canada for many of these same people, meanwhile, are rage-inducing.

The exploitation of seasonal workers in agriculture is already well known. Taking on low-paid manual labour that many Canadians avoid, the Guatemalans, Mexicans, and others who are flown in to help with harvests depend on employers for their visas and face deportation over the slightest offence. Henaway reserves a special dose of bile for a less publicized mechanism of exploitation: temporary placement agencies, which prey on asylum seekers and anyone else desperate for a paycheque. Because these middlemen allow corporations to avoid hiring directly, they “shield the actual employers from their legal responsibilities to their workers.” Henaway indicts Dollarama and the agri-food company Lassonde for filling entire warehouses and processing plants with “perma‑temps”: labourers who may spend years at a single facility with no employment security. Rates of injury in such jobs tend to be high, and the pay provided by temp agencies ranges from depressing to illegal. While the most-established groups obey basic legal requirements like paying minimum wage, less scrupulous “fly-by-night” ones often do not. Concentrated in immigrant neighbourhoods, these semi-formal operations bus workers in for the day and pay in cash. If challenged for their practices, they are likely to close down and reappear under another name.

Although his focus is structural, Henaway details some cases of grotesque abuse: chicken catchers recruited by the Quebec company Service Avicole JGL who made less than $300 per eighty-hour week and never received proper visas, as well as a Dollarama warehouse trainer in Montreal who, technically a “temp” after three years, was fired for raising concerns about COVID‑19 protocols. Particularly tragic is the case of Enrico Miranda. Hired through a temp agency, the Filipino man was killed on the job in 2019 at the industrial bakery Fiera Foods in Toronto. “The greed of his employers, who invested little money in training in the name of profits, is the real cause of his death,” Henaway concludes. The condemnation is all the more forceful because the book rarely relies on pathos. The exploitation here is perfectly logical.

The dramatic shifts in public discourse surrounding immigration have left some aspects of Essential Work, Disposable Workers feeling dated, just months after it was released. The second half turns to activism, celebrating the impact of centres like Henaway’s and citing cases where migrant leaders have successfully fought for better contracts and more secure legal status. But such advocacy for a world without borders reads like a holdover from an already bygone time. When the pandemic revealed our collective dependence on low-wage labourers, many migrant workers found themselves declared essential overnight. Pressure mounted to grant permanent residence to those on the front lines, especially the “guardian angels” employed in long-term-care homes. Considering the current panic over the housing supply, Henaway’s call for “freedom of movement for people, not capital,” sounds less realistic today.

Yet some basic reforms could generate consensus. Both labour and migrant organizations have long been calling for open permits that allow temporary foreign workers to switch employers, giving them an escape hatch from abusive conditions. The use of placement agencies could also be regulated or restricted. More fundamentally, Henaway calls on readers to reflect on what kind of society they want to live in. The Gulf States provide the most extreme examples of an immigration policy built around perma‑temps. In places like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, less than 15 percent of the population has citizenship, leaving the vast majority of residents vulnerable to exploitation at their jobs and deportation if they lose them. With under 7 percent of its population on temporary visas, Canada remains far from such a model, but the growth of temporary foreign worker programs is ominous. If our economy needs more manual labourers to thrive, those people deserve the social equality that citizenship secures.

Amanda Perry teaches literature at Champlain College Saint-Lambert and Concordia University.