Temporary foreign workers are a concern for all Canadians

The number of temporary foreign workers living in Canada has tripled over the past decade. Reliance on these workers interferes with market forces that would otherwise improve working conditions and spur investment in training for Canadian citizens and permanent residents according to this new Maytree article. However, the recent federal budget signals that the government is reconsidering how the temporary foreign worker program works.

By Bonnie Mah, Maytree

Last year, nearly 215,000 people entered Canada as temporary foreign workers in half a dozen program streams.

In comparison, in the same year, Canada admitted a grand total of 257,500 people as permanent residents – a number that includes all immigrants and refugees, spouses and children.

Those numbers are not an anomaly. Rather, they reflect a trend that has been quietly gaining momentum. The number of temporary foreign workers living in Canada has tripled over the past decade. From 2002-2010, numbers for every temporary foreign worker stream (both high-skilled and low-skilled streams) have increased. In 2012, nearly 340,000 temporary foreign workers lived in Canada.

Temporary foreign workers influence the labour market

Unlike permanent immigration programs, temporary foreign worker programs have no targets or caps on admissions. The number of temporary foreign workers admitted each year is subject to demand from employers and people applying for work permits. Our top five source countries are: Philippines, the United States, Mexico, Australia and France. About 40% come with a Labour Market Opinion (LMO) from the Canadian government, which approves an employer to hire a temporary foreign worker. The remaining 60% do not require an LMO.

Over the past few years, the federal government has made a number of changes that make it easier for employers to hire temporary foreign workers. For example, it shortened processing times for the LMO. In addition, employers are now allowed to pay temporary foreign workers 5-15% less than the prevailing wage for that occupation in that region.

Economists argue that the use of temporary foreign workers interferes with market forces that would otherwise motivate employers to raise wages and improve working conditions. Further, relying on workers that have been educated and trained abroad removes the incentive for employers and the government to invest in training Canadian citizens and permanent residents for available jobs. Some employers even hire successive temporary foreign workers, which suggests that these jobs are not truly temporary. Why spend time and money on job training for Canadian-born workers, or on employment support for new immigrants, when you can import short-term workers and pay them less?

Temporary foreign workers also give a few unscrupulous employers the opportunity to circumvent our labour laws by maintaining sub-standard working conditions for workers who are unlikely to complain or exercise their rights. And while temporary foreign workers pay taxes and contributions, they often cannot access the government services or benefits that these taxes and contributions pay for. Some temporary foreign workers, for example, are not eligible to collect Employment Insurance (EI) special benefits (such as maternity, parental, and compassionate care benefits), even though they are required to pay EI premiums. In other words, the government collects from these temporary foreign workers without fulfilling its end of the bargain.

At the same time, changes to our immigration system, such as the introduction of the Canadian Experience Class for select temporary residents, indicate that the government increasingly sees temporary residence as the first step before permanent immigration. Compared to Canada’s tradition of direct permanent residence, this extra step can mean delaying attachment to Canada and “being Canadian,” as well as prolonged family separation.

Reconsidering the role of temporary foreign workers

The government has recently signaled that it is reconsidering how the temporary foreign worker program works. Following recent public uproar over foreign mining workers in British Columbia, the government has undertaken consultations on this program. And while the federal budget allocates $42 million to meet the growing demand of temporary resident programs, it also proposes to:

  • Introduce fees for employers applying for a Labour Market Opinion (LMO)
  • Restrict the use of non-official languages as job requirements when hiring through the temporary foreign worker process
  • Increase the requirements for employers to try to recruit workers within Canada
  • Help employers that legitimately rely on temporary foreign workers to plan to transition to a Canadian workforce over time

These proposed changes might provide a needed check to ensure that employers reconsider their use of the temporary foreign worker program. At the same time, the fees will presumably facilitate processing of LMOs and work permits.

Certainly, some temporary foreign workers are necessary and desirable. But not at this scale. Not if the system works to the detriment of citizens and permanent residents already living in Canada. And not at the expense of our successful tradition of permanent immigration and naturalization.

We cannot let more time pass without a serious discussion about what this program does to and for Canada, and to and for foreign workers and future Canadians. We need to have a national conversation about the role of temporary foreign workers in the Canadian labour market and in Canada’s immigration system.