NAFTA work permits extended to 3 years

Extra time provides reassurance to employers
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/21/2009

Following the lead of the United States in October, Citizenship and Immigration Canada is allowing North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) professionals to work for three years in Canada before they renew their permit. Sixty-three occupations are exempt under NAFTA, including engineers, accountants, management consultants, computer system analysts and professors.

The occupations are chosen to meet the country’s needs and demands and to ensure Canada keeps needed talent here in the country, said Danielle Norris, media relations, Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

And while the extension will ease the administrative requirements, it also “provides employers with the reassurance they have access to the skilled labour they need to complete their project,” she said.

The three-year extension also ties in better with the new Canadian Experience Class program — which admits temporary foreign workers with two years’ experience, who fit a certain occupational classification, to make the transition to permanent residence — “so it opens up a whole lot of doors, especially for NAFTA workers who have a sense of how the country works and can put their skills… to good use,” said Norris. “It can’t be at a better time to extend it to three years and the option now with Canadian Experience Class, it’s really saying, ‘Look what Canada can offer you.’”

The change allows for better continuity because employees and employers won’t have to worry about annual renewals.

“There is less concern about missed dates or extension of an application or someone falling through the cracks,” said William MacGregor, a Waterloo, Ont.-based partner with the law firm Gowlings.

The three-year change also makes sense because many of the work permits in the United States and Canada are three years in length, so NAFTA is now more in alignment with those time frames.

“Plus it’s a relatively straightforward category so why put employers and government agencies through having to deal with renewals every 12 months?” said MacGregor. “It’s also a relatively low-risk category with few requirements, so why not have that?”

Currently candidates seeking such a permit must show border officials proof they have a job offer and appropriate job credentials, for instant adjudication. For renewals, they can either return to the border with the appropriate documents or mail an application to a processing office in Calgary.

It’s very easy, as long as the documents are valid and approved, and with the two-year addition, it’s even better, said David Ticoll, executive director of the Toronto-based Canadian Coalition for Tomorrow’s IT Skills.

“Instead of taking on a short project, which takes three to four months to get going, with three years you can take on a major assignment and, even if you renew just once, that’s almost like a career. You couldn’t ask for much more,” he said. “It really transforms the ability to take advantage of this existing cross-border agreement. It brings it up to a whole other level.”

Mexico is expected to follow suit with a similar extension so “the free movement of qualified labour in both directions, or all three with Mexico, can only be a good thing,” said Ticoll.

But there are limitations that should be looked into, he said. If a worker wants to cross over with credentials in one field and work in another field, or a field that appears different, there could be challenges. Or a worker might move into another role and find his credentials don’t match when he goes to renew, or be questioned if his role changes during a permit.

“It’s a great tool or mechanism but to cover off against fear of potential, perceived abuses, it can create restrictions, limitations for employers, so that’s where flexibility could improve in the way the rules work,” said Ticoll. “It’d be great if we could somehow add that other dimension.”

Each application is assessed on its merits, said Norris, and if a visa officer is not satisfied an individual can perform the required duties, or has insufficient ties to return to her home country, the application may be refused. Foreign workers have the responsibility to present information stipulating their qualifications.

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