Jason Kenney steps into the temporary foreign worker program conundrum

Program too easy or hard to access?

(Creatie Commons/Michael Swan)

(Creatie Commons/Michael Swan)

Stepping into the delicate politics of filling Canadian jobs with foreign workers, Jason Kenney was bound to appease no one. Prized by the business lobby, loathed by unionized labour, the temporary foreign worker program is either a solution to or an exacerbation of a problem that may or may not exist. The immigration minister spoke of the “paradox” of polarized opinion in announcing the program’s overhaul. There are, Kenney said, “constant pressures suggesting that the program is far too lax, and then from many, many employers and industry groups suggesting the program is far too rigid.”

He tried to strike a balance between the two, leaving the program in place but making it more difficult and more expensive for Canadian employers to import temporary labour. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business called the reforms “the worst decision this government has made since taking office.” The Alberta Federation of Labour said the program “has to be scrapped.” So much for the spirit of compromise.

The program stoked public anger when some Royal Bank of Canada employees complained their IT jobs were being handed to temporary foreign workers. Last fall, a B.C. company said it needed to bring in 200 Chinese miners for lack of qualified Canadians. In 2011, including the agricultural sector, nearly 450,000 temporary foreign workers came to Canada, more than doubling the size of the program over the last decade. In a country with 1.4 million unemployed, “that is just outrageous,” says David Gray, a labour economist at the University of Ottawa. “It looks like the temporary foreign worker program in many cases is serving as an escape valve for many employers,” who resort to imported labour rather than raise wages to attract Canadian candidates, he says.

The government shares those concerns. Kenney suspended an option to fast track applications and ended the rule permitting businesses to pay foreign workers up to 15% less than average. He told the country’s employers: “Don’t just double, but triple your efforts to hire and train available Canadians.” But the government already had the power to administer the program properly, says Perrin Beatty, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. “They took a program that was a last resort for many employers and made it that much more difficult and costly to access.”

The rationale for the program relies on pockets of acute labour shortages, for which there is anecdotal evidence, but little in the way of analysis. Beatty says those shortages do exist, particularly in lower-skilled jobs in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where the resource sector has diminished available workers. “They’re simply making it impossible for these small businesses to meet their staffing needs.” The program’s numbers will fall, he expects, to the detriment of Canadian businesses.