May 30, 2005: Underground Economy Bolstered By Illegals
Underground economy bolstered by illegals
Monday, May 30, 2005
OTTAWA — The federal government has no idea how many people might be working in Canada's underground economy, but officials believe the number of illegal immigrants employed in low-paying jobs could be as high as 400,000.
A House of Commons committee studying the issue said many of the workers enter the country on temporary visas and are now filling jobs most Canadians refuse to embrace.
The inability of officials to attach numbers to the underground economy has made it difficult to devise policy to deal with the issue, said Liberal MP Andrew Telegdi, who chairs the committee.
The introduction of exit visas, which track the number of visitors who stay beyond their scheduled trip, has been discussed as a way of collecting data.
But with underground workers quietly relied upon to fuel the economy, Canada may also look to study U.S. efforts to legitimize underground workers, a process also known as regularization, Telegdi said.
The federal government has acknowledged Canada's immigration standards are not addressing the inability of some industries, such as construction or agriculture, to fill vacant positions.
“We have to change the criteria for people getting into the country. We have to give more weight to people that are working in jobs that are hard to fill,” Telegdi said in an interview.
“With these people, if they are staying out of trouble and they are working, then they would be fairly easy to regularize.”
The United States has tried for years to determine the number of underground workers, with estimates there running as high as 12 million.
While the U.S. has designed aspects of its census program to estimate the figures, Canada is well behind, said Jeffrey Reitz, a professor of ethnic and immigration studies at the University of Toronto.
“As far as I'm aware, no one has ever attempted such a study in Canada,” said Reitz, who is planning to undertake that research.
“The figures that you see out there, and I've seen anything up to 600,000 illegals in Canada, where these numbers come from I have no idea. They're just pulled out of a hat.”
Some estimates peg the number of underground construction workers in Toronto alone at 25,000 to 40,000 people, Reitz said.
“That idea isn't crazy…. But I don't think it's anywhere near as big as that,” he said.
“To me it's implausible that you could have an illegal population of that size without generating much more of a social controversy than what we've seen, such as registration in schools and drivers' licences.”
U.S. President George W. Bush made overtures to the Mexican community during the last election, acknowledging the importance of undocumented workers to the U.S. economy.
Discussions of a program to legitimize some of those workers began after the election, but the matter has since fallen off the table in Washington, prompting criticism that it was used simply to attract votes.
Reitz said the contribution of undocumented Mexican workers to the U.S. economy is often taken for granted.
However efforts to legitimize such workers in the mid-1980s were fraught with problems. Underground workers employed in agriculture jobs left those positions in droves in search of better opportunities once they were given citizenship, Reitz said.
How the Canadian government will address the situation isn't clear. Conservative MP Diane Ablonczy, who sits on the all-party committee, said the matter is merely one of several immigration topics being discussed.
Telegdi said the government may have to look at revamping some of its immigration policies once it gets a handle on the size of the underground worker situation.
“We just don't know. Nobody knows, everybody's guessing,” he said. “But the reality is, if we were able to get rid of all the people here illegally tomorrow, it would hurt the economy. So what's out of kilter is our system.”
The Vancouver Sun 2005