It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. With apologies to Charles Dickens and his Tale of Two Cities, that line could easily describe Canada’s current labour market.
There’s a marked geographical split that essentially runs along the famed 100th meridian (no Tragically Hip puns, please). If you’re an employer west of that line, there’s a good chance you’re struggling to find talent. If you’re east of it, then you probably don’t understand all the hullabaloo surrounding the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) — except for the knowledge that you’ll likely get blasted in the news for "taking jobs away from Canadians" if you try to use it.
Poor headlines around the TFWP led Ottawa to announce plans, back in June, to crack down on abusers and overhaul the program. Among the changes were using wage levels, rather than National Occupation Codes, as the main criteria for determining low-wage versus high-wage work — the logic being that wages constitute a more accurate reflection of occupational skill level and local labour market conditions.
The Labour Market Impact Assessment Fee was boosted from $275 to $1,000 and the proportion of foreign workers an employer could use was capped at 10 per cent of all hours at the worksite. Applications were refused for low-wage, lower-skill occupations in economic regions with an unemployment rate of six per cent or higher.
Late last month, the federal government posted a discussion paper on the Employment and Social Development website. The gist of it is simple: Employers that flout the new rules when it comes to temporary foreign workers could face a permanent ban on hiring them. Other penalties include one-, five- and 10-year bans on applying for foreign workers. Proposed fines range from $500 to a maximum of $100,000.
None of that sounds too onerous if you’re east of the 100th meridian. If anything, it elicits a reaction of: "You weren’t already doing this?" But cast your eyes west and you’ll see dissent rising. These two headlines appeared on hrreporter.com in the first week of October:
•"B.C. premier chides federal overhaul of TFWP"
•"Prentice says time critical factor in Alberta’s worker shortage."
The Western premiers weren’t pulling any punches in their criticism of Ottawa’s crackdown. Alberta Premier Jim Prentice said time is of the essence for employers in his labour-crunched province, and bristled at the notion that employers in his province aren’t paying enough to attract Canadian workers.
"I’ve never agreed with the suggestion that really this is about Alberta business people trying to underpay," he said in an interview with the Canadian Press. "They’re quite prepared in most of the cases I’ve seen to pay a premium to get people here. They just can’t find people given the red hot economy."
Alberta has 68,000 temporary foreign workers and the premier said Ottawa’s tweaking is already hitting home.
In B.C., Premier Christy Clark called the changes "tragically misdirected." Her province is on the cusp of a huge expansion in the liquefied natural gas industry, something that will require a lot of labour to get rolling. In a speech to the Vancouver Board of Trade, she put the spotlight on one of the uglier sides of the objections swirling around temporary foreign workers — a general opposition to immigration.
"We should not think about people who come from across the world to British Columbia to work as being something less than the rest of us," she said. "So my advice to federal politicians is this: If (they) want to fix the temporary foreign workers program, maybe they should start with changing the name. Call them ‘potential new Canadians’ because they’re coming here to help us build our country."
For its part, Ottawa isn’t budging. It has made it clear it has no plans to back away from the recent changes and, despite the cry from the Western premiers, it’s hard to argue against that policy.
But Clark’s right. The TFWP has an image problem. It has been abused by unscrupulous employers. And it will continue to be abused — every government program is, to some degree. So perhaps a rebranding is in order.
And Prentice is right. His red-hot economy needs more workers than Alberta can attract, and pay is only one part of the equation. While some Canadians are moving out-of-province for jobs, not enough will ever do so — regardless of how fat the paycheque gets because few people are willing to uproot their families and lives to move to another part of the country.
So how do we fix what may be an already-fixed program? The first answer is: Give it more time.
The second answer, and this is a long-term issue, is that employers continue to work with educational institutions to develop scarce, in-demand skills. Students also need to be better informed about realistic job opportunities attached to their degrees.
But in the interim, the federal government needs to have a plan B in place to further open relief valves for provinces with booming economies that legitimately can’t find the talent they need to grow.