Firms turn blind eye to immigration status

Illegal immigrants aren’t a viable solution, but some industries are desperate for workers

Canadian employers, particularly those in the construction and hospitality industries, are grappling with a severe shortage of skilled workers. Because of this, many companies are turning a blind eye to the immigration status of those they hire.

This practice is not new, but has been a hot topic of debate recently. Despite public attention, however, policy-makers have yet to offer solutions that meet the needs of employers short on skilled staff and avoid sending the message that this country’s immigration laws need not be taken seriously.

For the new Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Monte Solberg, it’s the latter concern that takes priority. He recently said that the federal government plans to deport about 10,000 people this year, which is on par with the rate of removal of the last two years.

Federal immigration officials have begun to crack down on illegals in Toronto’s construction industry. In mid-March, about two dozen Portuguese nationals working in Canada illegally were rounded up and sent back to their home country. (Some current estimates have more than 200,000 paperless workers in the Toronto area alone.)

Solberg’s approach to the issue is in stark contrast to that of the former Liberal minister, Joe Volpe, who, in early 2005, announced a six-point plan that included a promise to deal with the “regularization” of paperless workers, a process of granting status to people with no status in Canada. His plan was reportedly not a “blanket amnesty,” but a program to bring in more workers to Canada on temporary visas to fill jobs in the trade sector and allow temporary workers and students to apply for landed-immigrant status once they have been employed in Canada for a certain number of months. The plan did not come to fruition before the government changed hands.

So where does this leave illegal workers and the Canadian companies that employ them? Between a rock and a hard place, says Toronto-based immigration lawyer Howard Greenberg. Under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, it is illegal to hire a person who does not have a legal right to work in Canada. Those convicted can face a fine of $50,000 and up to two years in prison. However, this law is rarely enforced.

“At the end of the day (employers) need skilled labour and so (they’re) forced into a position of illegality with the hopes that there will be some legitimization down the line. And that could be years from now,” says Greenberg. “Some very, very significant political decisions have to be made both at the provincial level and the federal level.”

He says the first step Canada must take is to follow the lead of the United States and place more emphasis on employer-sponsored or employer-arranged immigration programs.

“There’s going to have to be some sort of sponsorship program in place where there’s responsibility taken by employers over employees. That’s absolutely clear,” he says.

Next, says Greenberg, an identifiable skills shortage list needs to be compiled.

“A process like this is not a humanitarian and compassionate process. It is a pure economic skills shortage process. So the objective is not to legitimize 200,000 undocumented workers,” he says, rather it’s to legitimize those workers for whom there is a need in the economy.

The challenge is going to be defining a skills shortage, he stresses. For example, if there are shortages in certain occupations that can be addressed in the short term — through the training of Canadians at community college in a two- to five-year period — those occupations wouldn’t be on the list. After all, there are still a lot of youth who are unemployed or not focused in a career.

“The issue is how fast can you train them up. And if you can train up a skills shortage relatively soon, then you’re going to have problems finding it on the list,” he said.

Another point Greenberg makes is that the skills shortage is fairly wide. It’s not only that there aren’t enough qualified people to meet the need in certain sectors, but there aren’t enough Canadians actually willing to fill particular positions.

“For example, in the services, hospitality industry there might be a number of people available to change sheets on beds, but they don’t want to,” he says. “They don’t want to pick grapes, either, in the Okanagan Valley. That’s why Mexicans come up.”

Whether it’s a shortage of skilled workers, or a lack of Canadian citizens who are willing to take certain jobs, Silvia Bendo, program manager with the Construction Recruitment External Workers Services (CREWS) program, has heard every argument about the effect illegal workers have on this country.

“There are people saying that we’re losing tax dollars, because (illegal workers) aren’t paying employment insurance,” she adds. “Are they taking work away from Canadians? There’s the argument that they aren’t because Canadians really aren’t interested or willing to do the work. Or are they not? Are they preventing Canadians from entering because they are dominating so much? I don’t know. These are all very tough questions to answer.”

Among those with the most interest in having this issue resolved are employers in the construction industry. Five year ago, the federal government and the Toronto Home Builders’ Association tried to solve the problem by allowing employers to bring in workers faster on a temporary basis. The CREWS program allows for the temporary entry of qualified foreign construction workers, who are experienced in trades such as bricklaying, carpentry and cement finishing. The program is complemented by domestic recruitment efforts aimed at workers from high unemployment areas and a longer-term, expanded industry outreach policy to attract young Canadians to the industry and to raise awareness of job opportunities in Toronto’s construction industry.

While on paper the program should have been successful, that’s simply not been the case, says Bendo.

“Since 2001, we’ve had 330 employers offer over 1,000 jobs to foreign workers,” she explains. “Only 330 workers have arrived. (There’s been) a lack of awareness of the program. Part of it is maybe we were competing against the hope that there would be an amnesty-type regularization program. So workers who were here as visitors for a couple of years, instead of doing it properly through CREWS, getting a work permit, were waiting for this regularization program that various governments have been talking about.”

But Bendo reports that since the immigration crackdown in Toronto earlier this year, CREWS is getting three times the calls and interest from companies. One rough carpentry (framing) contractor reported to Bendo that he lost three entire crews during the crackdown. She’s also hearing more from failed refugee claimants and foreign workers whose status has lapsed. Immigration and Citizenship Canada requires these workers be off Canadian soil before they may apply for a work permit.

“I think it’s important for employers to take ownership of who their employees are and building a good strong, skilled workforce. If they take more interest in the status of their workers, then they can prevent some of the deportations, perhaps,” she says.

By taking notice of an employee’s status, companies can avoid taking a hit like many Toronto-based construction companies did in early March, said Bendo.

“The message is: Become more aware of how to hire workers legally.”

Kristan Wolfe is a Bowmanville, Ont.-based freelance wrtier.

Latest stories