Canada’s guest worker problem: Just not going away

When pundits sit down to write the story of the fall of Stephen Harper’s government, will it include the image of a middle-aged waitress from small-town Canada, fighting back tears after losing her job to foreign workers? At the very least, it will register as a turning point, the moment when a long-simmering immigration policy issue finally boiled over in the public consciousness and put Harper’s Conservative government on the defensive.

That moment arrived thanks in large part to a series of stories by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation last month on the government’s temporary foreign worker program (TFWP), a mechanism designed to allow employers to bring workers from abroad when they can’t find Canadians to fill the positions. Except the CBC found that some employers are alleged to have fired Canadian staff – some of whom had spent decades on the job – and replaced them with foreign workers on short-term contracts. Most of the cases occurred in restaurants, including McDonald’s franchises in several provinces. The evening news featured video of tearful waitresses in Weyburn, Saskatchewan saying they were fired after decades of service and replaced by foreign workers (a charge their former bosses dispute). A few nights later, a young shift supervisor at McDonald’s told the CBC his colleagues were increasingly losing shifts to foreign workers, a story apparently echoed in other outlets in British Columbia and Alberta.

Foreigners are taking Canadian jobs! No, foreigners are being exploited! Businesses are cutting corners and betraying common folk! No, Canadians are just too lazy to serve doughnuts and pick tomatoes! The outrage was instantaneous, as was the collective amnesia. Foreign workers have been part of the Canadian labour landscape for almost as long as there has been a Canada, and historians will tell you we’ve had mixed feelings about them for just as long.

In the 1880s, for example, the Canadian government encouraged men from China to work on the railway that helped to unite Canadians from coast to coast. They came by the thousands, worked more dangerous jobs than the whites for less pay and were expected to go home afterward. When that expectation proved incorrect and the number of Chinese migrants soared, the government imposed an expensive head tax to deter any new Chinese immigrants, an outrageously discriminatory practice for which Prime Minister Harper himself officially apologized in 2006, more than 100 years later.

Increase in Temporary Foreign Worker numbers, 2007-2012.
Source: Canadian Council for Refugees

The notion of using temporary labour from abroad to fill specific gaps in the domestic labour force persisted over the decades in different forms under successive political regimes. The current framework is based on a program started in 1973. It stipulated that “non-immigrant workers” had “temporary residency, no access to immigration and linked their residency directly to the employer.”

In 1988, there were 72,269 temporary foreign workers (TFW) in Canada. By 2005, under the Liberal government, that number had risen modestly to 89,628. A year later, Harper led the Conservatives to power and began a massive overhaul of immigration policy. The Canadian Council for Refugees, which advocates for several categories of immigrants, used the government’s own data to calculate that the number of TFWs rose by 70 per cent between 2008 and 2012. As early as 2008, the number of temporary immigrants outnumbered the number of permanent. By 2012, there were an astonishing 338, 213 TFWs residing in Canada – approximately 1.8 per cent of the total labour force. Not exactly hordes at the border, but noteworthy when the national unemployment rate is stuck at 7 per cent.

The recent flurry of headlines is not the first time the TFW has made news. Almost exactly a year ago, the CBC reported that the Royal Bank of Canada was planning to lay off dozens of workers in its IT department and replace them with staff from an outsourcing company in India. The Canadian workers even had to train their replacements (particularly embarrassing for a company that sponsors the annual Top 25 Canadian Immigrant Award). The outcry forced the government to announce an immediate investigation. There was a similar reaction more than a year before that, when a Chinese mining company operating in British Columbia hired almost exclusively from China, going so far as to include knowledge of Mandarin in its job criteria. Labour unions sued the company, the government registered its outrage and promised an investigation, and then the issue died down for a while. Lather, rinse, repeat.

This time, however, it’s different. The most recent allegations of abuses of the TFWP have inspired so much political vitriol that immigration policy is fast becoming a hot-button issue for the ruling Conservatives, just as the country seems headed for an election sooner than the legally-mandated deadline of October, 2015.

Jason Kenney, credit: Michael Swan

Jason Kenney
credit: Michael Swan

A recent story by the Canadian Press news service neatly sums up the predicament of Jason Kenney, the Minister of Employment and Social Development, who also happens to be Minister for Multiculturalism and was – until a cabinet shuffle in 2013 – Minister for Citizenship and Immigration. Kenney led the most comprehensive overhaul of immigration policy in recent Canadian history, increasing the emphasis on language and employability as admission criteria, scaling back family reunification and significantly reducing refugee flows. The changes were controversial to migration advocates but largely unnoticed by the average Canadian voter – except for the steep jump in temporary foreign workers.

Employers applying to bring foreign workers in have to jump through some clear some legal hurdles, including demonstrating they have advertised to fill the job within Canada without success, and secured a “labour market opinion” stating there is a shortage of candidates in this particular area. They are not supposed to be using the program as a loophole to offload expensive Canadian staff. But because of the way employers are using or abusing the TFWP, the CP story noted, Kenney is now “under attack from business groups, labour unions and — perhaps most troubling for Kenney with a federal election looming — everyday Canadians who believe the Conservatives have made it easier for foreigners to swipe their jobs.”

The rapid rise in temporary immigrants alarmed immigration advocates from the beginning, less because they were concerned about the labour shortage issue and more about the way the program was structured. In disturbing echoes of the Chinese railway workers, the TFWP allowed employers to pay foreign workers up to 15 per cent less than the prevailing market salary, and tied work permits to a single employer. Last year, when the so-called “wage flexibility” was abolished, one immigration lawyer warned his clients that “the compliance pendulum is swinging against employers,” but the requirement to remain with the original employer remains. Critics have long said this leaves migrant worker vulnerable to abuse, and have gathered evidence to buttress their arguments and raise awareness.

Regardless of what irks you the most about the policy debate, the implications of the current system are clear. By definition, a TFW is someone we are discouraging from settling in Canada, regardless of the ties he or she may have developed while here, or the fact that there is some evidence his or her services are needed. By definition, TFWs are vulnerable, because their status in Canada hinges entirely on a good relationship with the employer who sponsored them. Threatening that relationship means they run the risk of having their permits yanked.

Even some business groups see the pitfalls in cultivating a vast pool of people with no stake in the future of Canada, with some business leaders calling not just for a better system of tracking labour vacancies, but a smoother pathway to permanency for the TFWs who decide they’d like to make Canada home.

For now, the food service component of the TWFP has been suspended and some employers blacklisted from the program. The opposition parties are piling on the outrage and the Harper government says its year-long review of the TFWP will lead to important changes in the coming weeks.

When it does, will it show that they have grappled with the fundamental question of how much Canada can and should rely on workers imported from abroad to fill its labour gaps? Will it demonstrate a thorough exploration of the best way to manage foreign workers both as economic necessities and as potential citizens? Or will it be another case of lather, rinse, repeat?

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One comment

  1. […] market shortages is not a new strategy for Canada. The Temporary Foreigner Workers (TFW) Program has long been criticised and scrutinised by scholars and migrant community supporters. Such programs locate temporary migrants within a precarious legal status and have been seen as […]

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