Help Wanted: Researchers seek to uncover the experiences of temporary workers in Saskatchewan

By Costa Maragos Posted: April 19, 2018 6:00 a.m.

Dr. Andrew Stevens is Associate Professor in the U of R’s Paul J. Hill School of Business and the Kenneth Levene Graduate School of Business.
Dr. Andrew Stevens is Associate Professor in the U of R’s Paul J. Hill School of Business and the Kenneth Levene Graduate School of Business. Photo by Trevor Hopkin - U of R Photography

Saskatchewan has come to depend greatly on temporary foreign workers. Since 2005, the number of migrant workers has risen over 300 per cent in Saskatchewan compared to the national growth rate of 146 per cent.

In 2014, approximately 11,000 were working in Saskatchewan with temporary work permits.
 
With this growth, questions emerge as to how well this program is working in the province.

Dr. Andrew Stevens aims to find out. Stevens is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Business and an adjunct in the Department of Sociology at the U of R.

He will share some of his latest research at the Faculty of Business Administration’s research seminar April 20 at 11:00 a.m. at the Education Building (boardroom 560). His talk is titled Migrant workers and the maintenance of prairie capitalism in Saskatchewan.

Stevens is involved in two studies that seek to better understand the unique experiences of foreign workers who come to Saskatchewan to make a living.

Stevens leads a U of R project called, Saskatchewan in the Global Division of Migrant Labour.

In addition, he is collaborating with U of R colleague, Dr. Sean Tucker and health researchers Lori Hanson and Michael Schwandt from the University of Saskatchewan. Their project, Health Wanted; Social Determinants of Health Among Migrant Workers in Saskatchewan a study that will examine health-related issues of migrant workers.

We spoke with Andrew about his research so far.

How do migrant workers differ from traditional immigrants who come here?

They are different in many ways. Many are workers who come to Canada on temporary and closed work permits. That means they are only allowed to stay temporarily and under rigid conditions, unlike immigrants who come through different streams like family sponsorship or as high-skilled workers who get permanent residency upon arrival. Thousands are low-skilled workers who were brought over to fill jobs companies say they can't fill otherwise. We see many of these workers in fast-food jobs, hotels, and as seasonal labourers on farms.

Fastfood worker
Many migrant workers are employed in fast-food jobs, hotels and as seasonal labourers on farms.


You started these two projects more than a year ago. Why did you feel it’s important to start studying migrant workers at this point in time?

When you look at what is happening right now globally from an economic and security standpoint, or even what is happening politically south of the border, migrant worker issues are really on the radar.

We are witnessing a mass movement of people propelled by economic, social and political conditions and upheaval in their own home countries. Also fueling that is a pull from nations like Canada - an appetite for cheap, temporary labour.

All of these factors means there are a lot more people on the go. Saskatchewan is no different. Our province has for years been relying on temporary foreign workers to fill "labour shortages" and yet, we know very little about how this is having an impact on our society, our workplaces and most importantly the experiences of these newcomers.  

What if any themes have emerged so far relating to Saskatchewan’s migrant workers?

The precariousness of status is a big one. Many of these workers by and large live with a great deal of uncertainty because their employer can ultimately determine whether they can remain in Canada or not. For some, this means living in fear. This influences a lot of things. Their willingness to report abuse, mistreatment and or injury on the job is affected because they may be afraid saying something might compromise their work permit, that they may get deported.

We know these workers sometimes have a difficult time accessing health care. We know housing conditions continue to be a problem.    

On the other hand, we hear some really positive stories of migrant workers who had employers who sincerely cared about them and went to lengths to ensure when they first arrived here that they had help setting up a SIN, getting a place to live, finding a doctor.

Some employers even helped workers by making sure they had winter parkas ready for them to wear as soon as they arrived at the airport.

Like anything, it's a spectrum of experience and it's complex. We feel it's important to document all of this so we can get a clearer understanding that can guide us.

What are some of the things these workers are telling you about their experiences here?


We are learning so much about the resilience of these workers. Some come to Saskatchewan with just a few suitcases and a few hundred dollars. Some have paid a huge price. That can mean different things. Sometimes it’s financial in the form of thousands of dollars they've paid to a recruiter just to work a fast-food job. Often it's the sacrifice of leaving families behind. Meanwhile, others secured full-time employment shortly after arriving in Canada with their families as permanent residents.

One thing that stands out is that - despite all of this and not knowing anything about this province, so many workers fall in love with Saskatchewan. They describe how clean and fresh the air is. How safe and peaceful it is.  

What are you hoping will come out of this research?

Ultimately, our aim is to raise awareness about the experiences of migrant workers in Saskatchewan. These are people who make a contribution to our society.  If you order a cup of coffee, there’s a good chance the employee handing it to you is a migrant worker of some kind. The person cleaning your office might be a migrant worker, or the person working in your dad's care home. The person picking the produce you buy at the grocery store might be a migrant worker, even your professor. We interact with migrant workers all the time, yet they live in the shadows and there is so much about them we fail to understand.

Andrew Steven's labour study is funded by an Insight Development Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. His collaborative study with the U of S is funded by the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation. The study will conclude by hosting a migrant worker rights conference in 2018 in Saskatchewan. You can learn more about this research by visiting migrantwork.ca and migranthealth.ca.