March 7, 2013 by Ceris Ontario
(A Question and Answer with Geraldina Polanco)
If you were to summarize your research briefly, what are the most important elements?
My research explores the recruitment and employment of temporary foreign workers in fast food (i.e. service sector) worksites. While Canada has a long history of recruiting foreign workers for employment in sectors like agriculture and live-in caregiving, the expansion of the program to include a much broader spectrum of niches is making Canadian labour market organization a transnational project. The implications beyond the labour market are also considerable. With this as my point of entry I have had considered other factors such as global labour market hierarchies and inequalities, worker autonomy and consent within transnationally supplied worksites, and the on-the-ground establishment of a global fast food chain. There has been no shortage of interesting elements that have arisen from my research and I have enjoyed carrying out this project immensely.
What about your own experiences (or interests) lead you to focus on this topic?
Like many others, my life has been directly affected by broader social, economic and political process. During the 1980s my family and I moved to Canada as refugees from El Salvador because of the civil war. Growing up in Western Canada and watching my parents attempt to gain decent employment in the Canadian context made me very aware of the many injustices that underlie labour market organization, and the racialized and feminized nature of these processes. Moreover, graduate school helped me apply concepts and theories to the lived experiences I understood very intimately. Moving beyond the Central American context has also allowed me to consider the many continuous features that underlie capitalist labour market organization as well as the place-based, contextual nature of neoliberal economic projects. Theorizing across time and space has also allowed me to further develop my analytical and theoretical skills.
What have been your biggest obstacles, or opportunities, that you have faced while completing your research?
Over the course of my research it became very clear that the recruitment and employment of migrant workers in “low-skilled” occupations in Canada is a highly controversial practice. Not surprisingly, therefore, it has been a challenge conducting research for the purpose of understanding how the program operates in Canada. I had anticipated it would be difficult to recruit government bureaucrats and third party labour recruiters in the Philippines. I was therefore happily surprised by how willing government bureaucrats and recruiters were in the Philippines to participate in my study. Gaining access to similarly positioned interview subjects in Canada, however, was significantly more challenging, which I found surprising.
While I did eventually gain access to the research participants and data that I needed for my project regarding the recruitment and employment of fast food workers in Tim Hortons restaurants in Canada, it was an extremely timely and labour intensive process. I expected to have more challenges of this sort in the Philippines.
Has the process of your research lead you towards any unexpected areas of interest?
When I first started my doctoral studies my intention was to go to El Salvador and conduct a shop-floor ethnography in a textile maquiladora site. 3 years later I found myself following Tim Hortons workers around the Philippines. That’s the thing I most love about research – if you follow the leads that your empirical data and theories provide you, you never really know where that will take you! Many of the ideas I had about “low-skilled” migrant workers and those that primarily organize their experiences have also been challenged over the course of my research. I met many sympathetic Filipino government bureaucrats and labour recruiters. I also discovered that many Tim Hortons employers truly appreciate their migrant workers, sometimes even at the expense of local workforces.
I look forward to disseminating my work in scholarly outlets and broader spaces because I think the issues it raises are relevant to all residents of Canada. I also received an enormous amount of support over the course of my research, especially from organizations like Migrante British Columbia, Migrante Canada and Migrante International. If it weren’t for them I never would have been able to conduct this project, and everything I have learned through their support is worth sharing.
What impacts would you like your research to have?
In the past few years the Canadian federal government has made major changes to its immigration policies through amendments to Canada’s TFWP. This reorganization in labour and immigration policies will undoubtedly have significant long-term effects on the social fabric of Canada. What I hope my doctoral project accomplishes is to shed light on some of the social, cultural, and economic implications of these news trans-national employment practices and the need to carefully consider the broader and longer-term consequences of altering policies in an employer-friendly fashion.
About the Blog Author
Geraldina Polanco is a doctoral candidate in the department of Sociology at UBC. During her time at UBC she served as president CUPE Local 2278, organized with local community groups working on temporary foreign worker issues, and taught in the areas of Canadian society, qualitatively methodology, race and ethnic relations, and work and employment. This summer Geraldina will be defending her dissertation. In the fall she will be joining the Centre for Research on Latin Americaand the Caribbean at York University as a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow. For her postdoctoral project Geraldina will be conducting research in Mexico and western Canada, further examining the recruitment and employment of temporary foreign workers in service sector worksites. This project will serve to a third field site to her existing doctoral multi-sited ethnographic project. From these projects Geraldina will produce a book manuscript, tentatively titled: “Behind the Counter: Migration, Labour Policies, and Temporary Work in Global Fast Food Chains”.