Immigration system not meeting labour market needs: Auditor general

More immigrants coming to Canada through provincial nominee programs

There is a clear lack of a strategy on the government’s part to ensure permanent and temporary workers coming to Canada meet the needs of the labour market, as well as a lack of regulation that leaves temporary foreign workers vulnerable to exploitation, found a report from Canada’s auditor general.

The temporary foreign worker program, in particular, is not delivered efficiently and effectively, found the report. There is no systematic review by either Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) or Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) to ensure job offers are genuine or that employers are complying with the terms and conditions under which the work permits were issued, according to the November 2009 report.

“The problems we noted could leave temporary foreign workers in a vulnerable position and pose significant risks to the integrity of the immigration program as a whole,” said auditor general Sheila Fraser.

In October, before the report was released but after the audit was concluded, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced changes to the temporary foreign worker program.

The proposed improvements would include a more rigorous assessment of the genuineness of an employer’s job offer, with an examination of an employer’s past compliance with federal and provincial labour laws.

The changes would also prevent employers that have failed to deliver on promises regarding compensation, working conditions or the actual job from hiring workers through the program for two years. They would also be named on CIC’s blacklist.

Most of the changes are aimed especially at protecting low-skilled workers in the program, said Bill MacGregor, leader of the immigration national practice group at the law firm Gowlings in Waterloo, Ont.

“I think it’s part of a trend generally to tighten things up and try to protect foreign workers and try to have more of an enforcement process,” said MacGregor. “I think that’s a good thing. Whether it goes far enough, I suppose, can be debated.”

Decisions made by CIC, which don’t seem to be supported by a strategy to meet the needs of the Canadian labour market, have caused a significant shift in the types of foreign workers becoming permanent residents, found the report on foreign workers (which is part of a larger report covering other Canadian issues).

While the annual targets for immigrants under the economic class have changed little in the past five years, targets for programs under the class have changed dramatically.

Targets for the provincial nominee programs (PNPs) increased 471 per cent from 3,500 in 2004 to 20,000 in 2009. On the other hand, targets for the federal skilled worker program dropped 31 per cent from 98,200 to 68,200.

The PNP might soon become the largest source of economic immigrants, which could affect how well Canada’s immigration system meets labour market demands, stated the report.

Under the PNP, certain provinces and territories can nominate candidates for immigration based on their own selection criteria to meet regional labour market needs without approval from the federal government. These candidates are not subject to the points system of the federal skilled worker program.

Because the criteria vary so widely among the different PNPs, the federal, provincial and territorial governments need to formally evaluate the programs to see if they are in fact bringing in immigrants who match labour market demands and if immigrants who enter one province actually stay there, stated the report.

“It is critical that the government’s programs to facilitate the entry of permanent and temporary workers be designed and delivered in a way to ensure that the right people are available at the right time to meet the needs of the Canadian labour market. The choices that are made now will affect the kind of society Canada has in the future,” stated the report.

Toronto-based citizenship and immigration lawyer Sergio Karas agreed with the auditor general’s findings.

“The immigration and refugee system is totally broken,” said Karas, who is the chair of the Ontario Bar Association’s citizenship and immigration section. “We need some major reforms.”

At the top of his list is the way in which the system selects skilled immigrants. Instead of relying on a points system and an outdated, political list of priority occupations, the government should work with businesses to find out exactly what kind of immigrants they need, he said.

“I would like to see an employer-driven immigration program,” said Karas. “If we would only bring in the type of immigrants that the labour market demands then they would all have jobs.”

In 2008, the government changed the Immigrant and Refugee Protection Act to give the minister of citizenship and immigration the power to set eligibility criteria in an effort to reduce the backlog of applications under the federal skilled worker program, which had nearly doubled since 2000.

In October 2008, the ministry set new eligibility criteria requiring applicants for the federal skilled worker program to have one year of experience in one of 38 occupations (down from a list of 351), to have lived in Canada for one year as a temporary foreign worker or international student, or have a job offer.

Under the new criteria, the government forecast a reduction in new applications and that processing times for new applications would take six to 12 months. But the auditor general found no evidence of policy, program or operational analysis to support that forecast.

At the end of February 2009, the backlog was 635,233. By June 30, 2009, the total backlog and new applications was 594,122, a 6.5-per-cent reduction, which was mostly due to ineligible applications made by people unaware of the new eligibility criteria, stated the report.

The auditor general called for strong structures and processes to support the identification of priority occupations to ensure there is a link between labour market needs and the selection of immigrants. While the government held consultations to select the 38 priority occupations, there is no mechanism in place to ensure the list will remain up-to-date, found the report.

The government is wasting a lot of resources by bringing in immigrants who will never work or be stuck in low-paying jobs because they don’t have the skills needed for the jobs available, said Karas. Instead, the government should focus its resources on those individuals who will have the most economic impact.

“You can’t have people coming to Canada and wandering the streets not able to find a job,” he said.

There should be a graduated immigration system that starts with work permits, so only people with a job in hand could begin the immigration process, said Karas.

As such, the temporary foreign worker program is absolutely necessary to the system. But there needs to be an acknowledgement not all participants in the program would be appropriate for permanent residency, he said.

The program is often used in industries to meet short peaks in demand. But after the peak, demand drops off and not as many workers are needed so they would no longer have a job, said Karas.

“There are people who need to go home after their services have been performed,” he said.

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