Will new blanket foreign worker rules smother some industries?

Labour shortage, abuse of temporary foreign worker program varies between industries

By Jeffrey R. Smith

The use of temporary foreign workers in Canada has come under serious scrutiny and has led to controversy over the past few months. While the temporary foreign worker program is intended to fill gaps in the labour force when there aren’t enough homegrown Canadian job candidates, it seems some employers may be abusing the program — something some might say is inevitable.

Big-name companies like Tim Hortons and McDonald’s have been chastised for franchisees apparently taking advantage of foreign workers, to the point where federal employment minister Jason Kenney placed a temporary ban on employers in the food industry from hiring temporary foreign workers and the federal government announced reforms to the program would be made.

Things came to a head a couple of months ago when a Tim Hortons foreign worker accused his employer of withholding overtime pay, followed by allegations of McDonald’s franchises giving foreign workers priority work status over Canadian employees — which, along with a few other instances of restaurants taking advantage of foreign employees prompted Kenney’s ban. And all of this came in the wake of controversies in the banking sector over the use of immigrant workers, that led to the government already tightening things up. But are abuses of the program widespread enough to warrant blanket changes for everybody?

Organizations representing Canada’s meat industry recently came forward with concerns over how foreign worker controversies and the government responses are making things difficult for them to find workers. According to the Canada Meat Council, the industry faces significant labour shortages because it can’t find enough Canadians to work in its plants, despite recruitment efforts. The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association echoed those concerns, saying some plants are short as many as hundreds of workers and without recruiting temporary foreign workers, these plants are at risk of being unable to operate competitively. It was also pointed out that foreign workers in the industry are given the same pay and benefits as Canadian workers and are members of unions.

There’s been no indication as to what kind of reforms the federal government is planning to make to the temporary foreign worker program, other than they will ensure Canadian workers will always have first crack at jobs. And perhaps that will help resolve situations where foreign workers are being treated unfairly and being given unfair priority over domestic workers because of lower pay and other considerations. But in industries where abuse of the program is not widespread and employers treat foreign workers fairly, will reforms lead to potentially more obstacles for those who have a hard time finding enough workers as it is? Can a cue be taken from Jason Kenney’s food-industry-only ban and have different rules for industries where there are more problems and not penalize those where there aren’t?

We’ll see once the feds announce their reforms and whether they differentiate between industries that have more need of foreign workers and those that don’t.

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