The Liberal government’s recent attempt at reforming the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP is receiving two thumbs down from both national and provincial union representatives — but praise from a business association.
“We are very disappointed in the committee’s report as a whole,” said Canadian Labour Congress president Hassan Yussuff in Halifax, adding his advice to the federal government is to “basically disregard the committee’s recommendation.”
“The thing that really disheartened me is, had there not been a change of government, the previous government could have written this report,” he said. “It’s astonishing to me.”
A House of Commons committee tabled a report Sept. 19 outlining recommendations for program reform drawn from upwards of 60 submissions by industry stakeholders, unions, employers, individuals and senior government officials.
The report includes 21 recommendations for the complex program which dates back to 1973, including a lax on previous regulations that made it difficult for foreign workers to become permanent Canadian residents, and scrapping a rule that previously tied worker permits to specific employers — a clause critics deemed to incite the potential for abuse.
The major changes proposed by the Liberal government are intended to relax the strict hiring rules implemented by the previous Conservative regime, according to the government.
Seeking middle ground
Employment minister MaryAnn Mihychuk and immigration minister John McCallum issued a joint statement saying they will review the committee’s report and respond to Parliament within 120 days.
Mihychuk acknowledged that businesses must attempt to first draw from the Canadian workforce, but also have access to temporary foreign workers if needed.
“The current Temporary Foreign Worker Program isn’t working,” she said. “That’s why we’ve made a commitment to bring forward changes to the program to ensure it works for employers, for vulnerable workers and for the Canadian economy.”
The influx of migrant workers into Canada has slowed in recent years, following federal restrictions applied to the program in 2011 and 2014 — including a rule that limited workers to four-year terms.
The number of approved temporary foreign worker positions in Canada this year was 54,000 — far less than the 118,000 of 2013, according to information provided by the government. The current number of migrant workers corresponds to 0.3 per cent of the country’s current workforce of 19 million strong.
Recognizing it was the Liberal government’s first attempt to reform the program, Yussuff said he was hoping for much more than what the committee’s proposal contained.
“We were quite dismayed,” he said. “It’s almost like the committee was in denial of the things that we had to say regarding why this program, for the most part, should be curtailed or even scrapped.”
The program suppresses wages and exacerbates unemployment levels in some parts of the country, heavily favouring employers, he said, pointing to Alberta’s eight per cent unemployment rate as an easy reason for the program to be discontinued.
“We’ve got about four million people in the country that work for less than $15 an hour,” he said. “I think this program, to some degree, suppresses wages from rising in (low-skill) sectors.”
The government’s initial attempt at reform also drew criticism from a British Columbia union representing construction workers.
“These changes they’re recommending don’t help employees at all,” said Mark Olsen, manager of the Labourers’ International Union of North America office in Surrey, B.C. “The way I look at it, there’s really two goalposts to this thing. At one end, there’s the prevailing rate and at the other end of the spectrum is a pathway to Canadian citizenship. We need to get both those pieces right.”
Reform is needed to implement a more realistic prevailing wage for the construction industry, as Canadians are missing out on work opportunities, he said, and companies should want to put Canadians on the job first by paying them a “Canadian wage.”
Employers should adhere to best practice when using the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, said Olsen, including a resistance to view it as an opportunity to find workers at a lower-than-going-rate cost.
Employers risk a legal challenge if they employ migrant workers when Canadians are available, or exploit temporary workers, he said.
Source for talent
But the ability to hire foreign nationals is still critical to the Canadian economy, and a critical source of talent for employers in occupations and geographic locations facing a true skills shortage, said Warren Everson, vice-president of policy at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Ottawa.
“The Canadian economy is extremely flexible and ever-changing,” he said. “You need a lot of mobility to get the critical tool — which is a skilled worker — in the place you need them. We have a tremendous amount of benefit to our economy from being able to bring in highly skilled workers.”
To move the national economy forward, employers need to entice the world’s top talent to work in Canada — regardless of citizenship, said Everson.
He pointed to the country’s national pastime as a prime example, saying professional players from Sweden or Denmark playing in Canadian markets are technically taking the job from a Canadian.
“But we want the very best in the world because we want to win games,” said Everson, pointing to the potential economic benefits the country’s largest urban centre would incur should Danish goalie Frederik Andersen lead the Toronto Maple Leafs to the playoffs.
“How many Canadians are going to benefit from that? Concessions, parking, the media… Thousands of people will benefit if a single, skilled foreign worker plays a pivotal role. We have to recognize that you need to use every device at your disposal to win. And when you win, the benefit to Canada — tax money, employment — is enormous, and we have to respect that.”
The same formula works for sectors such as technology and manufacturing, he said.
Employers don’t look at temporary workers as an easy solution, said Everson.
“The cost of bringing in foreign workers — almost no matter how you cut it — is considerably higher. So if there are competent Canadians around, employers are heavily incented to hire them.”