The federal government has said it is altering the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) to ensure Canadians remain first in line for domestic jobs — but critics are wondering if any real changes have been made at all.
In April, updated requirements were unveiled for employers seeking to hire temporary foreign workers, including measures promoting the recruitment of underrepresented sectors in the workforce, such as youth, women, Indigenous people, and people with disabilities.
The announcement followed a House of Commons committee report tabled last September, as well as the federal budget unveiled in March, which earmarked $280 million over the next five years and $50 million for each year after, to support the continued delivery and improvement of the TFWP and the International Mobility Program.
“The changes we are making to the TFWP will help ensure that Canadians have the first opportunity at available jobs, that vulnerable workers are protected, and that the Canadian economy can continue to grow and thrive,” said Patty Hajdu, minister of employment, workforce development and labour, in a joint statement with Ahmed Hussen, minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship.
“From improving express entry to launching the Global Skills Strategy to dropping the four-year rule for temporary workers, the government has taken action on many of the recommendations that the standing committee put forward in fall 2016,” said Hussen.
New commitments include better protections for foreign workers, an increase in on-site inspections, and a pursuit of information-sharing agreements with the provinces and territories.
The TFWP dates back to 1973, allowing Canadian employers to hire foreign nationals to fill temporary labour and skill shortages when qualified Canadian citizens or permanent residents were not available. A total of 79,000 foreign workers were approved for positions in Canada in 2016 — about one-third lower than usual numbers over the last five years.
To ensure Canadians always have the first opportunity at available jobs, the government will now require employers to recruit more Canadians, particularly those who are underrepresented in the workforce — youth, newcomers, women, Indigenous people, and people with disabilities.
But the updates do little to change the structure of the program, according to Howard Levitt, a senior partner at Levitt Employment and Labour Law in Toronto.
Attempting to hire local workers first is already the law for employers, and the House of Commons review has resulted in nothing of value in favour of a simple restating of the program’s core objectives, he said.
“This is a wonderful, archetypical example of how government studies are entirely wastes of taxpayers’ funds,” said Levitt.
“It’s a solution in search of a problem. Employers have already learned their lesson, and temporary foreign workers are being used, in my experience, only when employers really can’t find eligible candidates in their market area.”
On a similar note, Alberta recently announced a two-year test project that will match employers seeking temporary foreign workers with liaison officers who will put them in contact with local workers, when possible.
“Our government remains focused on making sure that Canadians are always first in line for any available job,” said Matt Pascuzzo, press secretary for Hajdu.
“For example, the new pilot project announced in Alberta will help employers recruit Albertans for available jobs in Alberta and will help so many people who have been affected by the economic downturn.”
But employers are already required to reach out to Canadian workers first, said Patrick Snider, director of skills and immigration policy at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Ottawa.
“The TFWP is a very slow and expensive process for getting a hold of any kind of worker,” he said.
“Switching to using someone from that program is usually a last resort, and if (employers) are going that route, it’s because they’ve already exhausted their options in terms of Canada’s domestic talent.”
And while nativism movements sweep across various western countries, Canada may be primed for a talent influx, barring drastic legislative changes, said Snider.
“It goes without saying that the more restrictive every other country is, the more opportunities there are that we can take advantage of,” he said.
“Every country has to make that balancing act for themselves. As long as we’re bringing in the people that are in demand and can really contribute to our economy, and we do it in a way that’s responsive to employer needs, then I think we’re going to continue to see benefits.”
The federal government also said investments in skills, training and education resources can be better leveraged to identify fields with likely labour and skills shortages. To that end, it will work with sectors that are heavy users of the TFWP to create Canadian workforce development strategies in partnership with employers, organized labour and other stakeholders.
“This will include more outreach to underrepresented groups as well as use of existing federal and provincial programming in skills and training for Canadians. This sectoral work will inform any future decisions with respect to the cap on the proportion of low-wage TFWs that a business can employ at a given time,” said the government.
Much of the change seems to be focused on low-wage employees in terms of outreach into under-represented sectors of workers, said Snider.
“The government already runs a number of programs to assist companies in hiring members of those groups,” he said. “Bringing them into the workforce is absolutely something we support. The question is whether that is actually going to make a difference or if it’s just going to be an additional administrative burden on the TFWP.”
It’s a matter of how narrowly or broadly the government defines low-wage workers, said Snider.
“If it’s something where it restricts more skilled workers, then that becomes a bit of an issue, just because companies are already doing a lot of head-hunting to try and find these people. It might make the whole process a lot slower.”
And when it comes to protecting workers, the government said it would undertake measures to provide information to TFWs regarding their rights and recourses, and to clarify employer obligations and responsibilities for those that wish to hire TFWs. For example, the government will provide information to foreign workers about their rights when they first arrive in Canada and will work with community organizations devoted to the protection of vulnerable foreign workers, to ensure workers are informed of their rights and protections when they are in Canada.
While the changes do not represent a major overhaul in terms of the program’s overall direction, it remains to be seen how far the government will go with some of the announced measures, said Snider.
“I don’t think there’s any big surprise in the direction that they’re going,” he said. “So far, you can see that they’re being a little bit cautious with their changes, and trying to balance both sides.”
In looking at the government’s previous announcements through the budget, or back in December, and the response to the committee, a lot of it is just a repetition of things already said, said Snider.
“I do hope they’re listening to the stakeholders. We’ve been active in terms of giving them feedback around things like the Global Skills Strategy, making sure that it really does benefit employers, as opposed to simply being a cosmetic change.”
As long as the administrative burden isn’t significantly increased for employers, the government should be pushing to enforce the rules and making sure the program is operating as it was intended, he said.
“That’s an important part of making sure there is trust and legitimacy in the program.”
The government has also announced the upcoming June launch of a Global Talent Stream, which is meant to foster innovation and growth, allowing high-growth Canadian companies to attract the specialized global talent they need to innovate and expand, while assisting in filling in-demand occupations where there is a demonstrated skills gap in the domestic market, said Pascuzzo.
Overall, that is where the concern of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce also lies, said Snider.
“Our main concern is the high-skilled end of the labour market and making sure that those restrictions that they’re putting on the low-skilled end don’t start affecting companies who are trying to fill very specialized and high-skilled positions,” he said.
“The devil’s always in the details.”
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