The Challenge of the Immigrant Worker | Print Version
by Harry Valentine*
Le Québécois Libre, September 15, 2013, No 314

Canada is a nation built by immigrants. The first wave of immigrants arrived from England and France, the result of the search for a shorter ocean passage between Europe and the spice lands of Asia. Wind-driven ships of that period sailed the long voyage around the Southern African coast. Productivity-raising economic growth in Canada was a spinoff of the industrial revolution that began in England and spread to America during the 19th century. It created additional demand for an abundance of labour elsewhere.

The development of trains resulted in thousands of workers being imported from the Asian colonies to help build Canada’s transcontinental railway. As a result, several thousand men from China and several hundred from India arrived on Canada’s west coast, where they were treated as 3rd class citizens, a result of Britain’s class structure. While Canada’s 3rd class citizens of the 19th century had limited opportunities for employment, many turned to entrepreneurship and opened businesses in the retail and restaurant sectors.

At the time, an absence of economic regulation such as market entry control allowed willing immigrant entrepreneurs to start businesses that used some of the technological innovations of the time. Despite the prevalence of racial and ethnic discrimination, peaceful trade prevailed across ethnic, cultural and religious lines. Immigrant entrepreneurs provided employment for other immigrants of similar origins in cities such as New York, San Francisco, Vancouver and several other large American and Canadian cities where immigrant-owned businesses contributed to the municipal, provincial and federal tax base. Their contribution even helped pay the salaries of anti-immigrant political bigots.

Ongoing technological innovation continually opened new opportunities for entrepreneurial types who were usually the first to recognize the potential of using new technologies in the operation of small businesses. Such ongoing innovation saw the great grandchildren of immigrant labourers, who during an earlier period were treated as 3rd class citizens, find opportunity in new professions that required higher levels of education. Ongoing technical innovation not only produced the tools that made slavery unprofitable, it also created new job categories that required candidates to engage innovative thinking instead of applying brute physical strength.

For more than a century, the descendants of immigrants who were once the object of profound class discrimination have expanded their entrepreneurial activities and achieved higher levels of education. They have entered professions that were off-limits to their great grandparents, and professions that had previously never existed. It is in the relative absence of economic regulation and market entry control that the descendants of immigrants, and even recently arrived immigrants, have achieved advancement. However, immigrants do face a scourge of discrimination in the form of barriers to advancement in professions controlled by politically well-connected industry fraternities.

Government statistics show that immigrants as a distinct segment of the population are paid less than the general population. The mainstream news media has over the past few years broadcast news stories and documentaries about the plight of highly qualified immigrants who have achieved international recognition in their fields of expertise immigrating to Canada and then not getting hired. There are numerous examples of foreign-trained physicians working as orderlies in Canadian hospitals, driving taxis or trucks on the highways to deliver goods to warehouses. Some immigrant accountants work as cashiers in Canadian department stores and supermarkets.

Professions that exclude qualified immigrants or that refuse to recognize their foreign qualifications share some common traits, including control by a guild or professional fraternity, purportedly to assure quality of service to customers. These fraternities almost consistently operate with government sanction. Several multinational corporations that require some professional services have gone offshore and set up offices in developing nations where foreign workers process information, provide accounting services and even provide technical and engineering services. Foreign information-technology professionals formulate and develop much of the code that operates business computers, including computers used in sectors that practice market entry restriction.

Advances in long-distance real-time telecommunications technology allows a physician located in one country to perform surgery on a patient located in another nation. Such technology allows a radiologist located in India to provide X-ray services at a clinic located in the USA. It also allows a physician located somewhere in Asia to examine a patient located in a private home somewhere in North America. The foreign doctor can look at a patient’s throat, hear the patient say “Aaaah” and listen to the patient’s heartbeat. Would we need to visit overseas doctors via Internet if immigrant doctors were not required to drive trucks in Canada?

Many years ago, another nation practiced market entry control into a variety of professions that required college and university level education. That nation was pre-1990 South Africa. Advances in technology resulted in privately owned businesses in that nation pressuring the national government to revise its policies with regard to the ethnic backgrounds of qualified candidates. There is no way in which a private sector that is free from government economic regulation could practice this form of market entry restriction in professional employment. Only the collusion of government could achieve such a result.

It is essential that businesses be totally free to discriminate among candidates when they hire new staff. It is even more essential that such businesses be totally free from any form of government economic regulation in terms of both market entry and their hiring practices. Businesses that face competition in an unregulated market seek to provide a higher quality of service at competitive prices to their customers. An earlier generation of immigrants proved their entrepreneurial acumen and business savvy when they opened businesses. Only government economic regulation could take that away from them.

* Harry Valentine is a free-marketeer living in Eastern Ontario.