Several changes to the federal Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) were announced in June this year by the Minister of Employment and Social Development, Jason Kenney. Since 2006 the program has attracted controversy and a recent report by CBC said that MacDonald’s outlets in Victoria were favoring temporary foreign workers over Canadians.
As per the 2006 census, there was a 118% increase, since 1996, in the number of adult non-permanent residents working in Canada. Research has shown that “the number of non-permanent residents who entered Canada in 2008 (399,523) exceeded the number of permanent immigrants of all types landed that year (247,243).” This has met with contradictory responses. The argument that provincial labour markets (like Alberta’s) suffer labour shortages has been countered with the response that all there is still unemployment in all of Canada and that temporary foreign workers (TFWs) take away jobs from Canadians.
The TFWP has been the fastest growing part of non-permanent admissions to Canada. It has four streams: agricultural workers, live-in caregivers, higher skilled occupations and lower skilled occupations. The largest growth has been seen in the lower skilled occupation. The number of TFW positive labour market opinions doubled between 2005 and 2012 in sectors like manufacturing and mining, oil and gas, and increased more than seven-fold in construction. There was also an increase in positions in accommodation and food services from 4,360 to 44,740 during the same period. The reforms therefore particularly target the ‘low skilled’ route. Some of the steps include introducing a cap to limit the ratio of low wage TFWs that a business can employ, a reformed labour market assessment process and a refusal to process applications for low-skilled positions in accommodation, food services and retail in regions with more than 6% unemployment.
The reforms have been based on the argument that the TFWP has distorted local labour markets by keeping wages down and developing a vulnerable workforce with negligible mobility. The arguments focus on the perceived threat to Canadian workers. However, evidence suggests that migrant workers are more likely than Canadian workers to be underemployed or have lower weekly earnings. The new changes to the TFWP restrict the length of permits in the low wage stream to one year. But there has been no attempt to address the issue of exploitation that results from the precarious legal status of TFWs. TFWs are often tied to the sponsoring employer, have poor quality and/or expensive tied accommodation, and do not have access to collective representation.
There reforms also address the problems with the Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP) and agricultural streams. This is because ‘low skilled’ agricultural and care jobs are the ones that Canadian citizens and permanent residents will not do. The LCP workers have to live with their employer as a condition of their visa, leading to well-documented problems like excessive working hours, non-payment of over-time, and a lack of privacy and personal space. Workers cannot bring their dependents, and have to endure long periods of separation within families. Workers in the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) must also live in employer-provided accommodation and have no path to settlement. In these cases, the labour market ‘distortions’ are justified by the need for low paid workers in the sectors that provide basic needs: food and care. They allow the provincial and federal Governments to ignore the ‘care deficit’ that has resulted due to a lack of public investment in childcare and homecare for the elderly.
It seems that both government and big corporations, who freely advocate the theory of ‘free market’, cry foul when labour shortages mean they might be forced to raise wages and improve conditions for workers. The TFWP makes it almost impossible for workers who do these vital jobs to make Canada their permanent home. It devalues their work by designating them as ‘low skilled’, even if the workers’ qualifications match or exceed those required for other streams. Kenny’s changes do not address any of these issues and he is hardly playing fair with Canadian immigration policy.