Temporary foreign workers, not sure we need you

Canada has barred restaurants from using temporary foreign workers, but it’s unclear how much they were needed in the first place

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The other day the CEO of McDonald’s Canada uttered a “B” word that landed him in the proverbial deep fryer, and it wasn’t “Big Mac.” With allegations swirling about the chain’s possible abuse of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (it seems a Victoria location had been passing over Canadian job applicants in favour of Filipino workers) chief executive John Betts had called a halt to McDonald’s use of the program and ordered an audit. It was on a conference call with freaked-out franchisees, addressing the CBC’s investigation into the company, that he sounded off: “This is an attack on our people,” he said during the call, which, in turn, was leaked to the CBC. “It’s bulls–t.”

It’s not often a potty-mouthed CEO gets caught on tape, let alone one who leads a company that’s the favoured punching bag of environmentalists, unions, health advocates and other assorted activists. As such, the cuss drew most of the attention. Which is too bad, because something Betts said elsewhere during the call says far more about the mess McDonald’s, and the Conservative government, now find themselves in. Jason Kenney “really knows his stuff,” Betts gushed about Canada’s minister of employment and social development, who oversees the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFW). “And I’ll say he knows his stuff from a businessperson’s perspective.”

If you want to talk baloney, this is a good start. For a government that insists it understands the private sector better than other federal parties, the Conservatives have shown themselves to be shockingly naive when it comes to what motivates businesses. Here, in a nutshell, is how Kenney thinks things should be unfolding in the job market. Speaking on CBC Radio’s The House a couple of days after suspending the TFW program for restaurants across the country, he acknowledged the possibility of abuse, but said he had a bigger message to send to industry: “If it’s true that we have a very tight labour market, we should be seeing more inflation in terms of wages, employers should be responding to tightness in the labour market.”

That all makes perfect, Econ 101 sense. A tight labour market should lead to wage inflation and spur companies to do more to make themselves attractive to workers. But what about when governments intervene with a program that allows companies to bypass that labour market dynamic; a program that is subsequently tweaked to expedite the process of recruiting temporary workers from outside the country and that was (temporarily) tweaked again to let certain employers set wages for TFWs below what’s paid to domestic workers. If Kenney knew his stuff from a businessperson’s perspective, he’d know no businessperson would pass up an opportunity to take advantage of that environment to minimize costs and boost productivity.

All of this was spelled out in detail in a recent C.D. Howe report that was startlingly critical of the TFW program in its current format. For the Harper government, it’s one thing for unions to accuse it of benefiting employers at the expense of domestic workers. It’s another when a right-leaning think tank says your policies “actually accelerated the rise in unemployment rates in Alberta and British Columbia.”

But let’s go back to this question of Canada’s labour shortage. Did you catch Kenney’s fudge in that radio interview? “If it’s true.” Coming from a government that’s been banging the drum for years about acute labour shortages, it was a tacit admission it does not have a reliable picture of the job market from which to operate. It’s worth recalling the embarrassing (or it should have been) revelation that in preparing a Jobs Report for release alongside the federal budget in February, the department of finance relied on job postings from Kijiji—an online classified website I just used to sell an old air conditioner—to warn of a re-emergence of labour shortages, even though Statistics Canada’s own job-vacancy rate has been on the decline. There’s a reason C.D. Howe, in its report, said it is crucial for Canada to develop better data about the state of local labour markets before opening the floodgates to temporary foreign workers.

Look, there’s no question that when Canada’s economy is firing on all cylinders, there are simply not enough domestic workers ready and willing to move to where the jobs are. Canada’s system of Employment Insurance is itself broken and serves as a disincentive for workers to relocate away from areas suffering chronic and repeated joblessness—it’s a government program that distorts the job market and is little better than the TFW program in that respect.

But despite dire warnings from the restaurant industry that, with the TFW tap turned off, some businesses may close and others will have to raise prices—well, that’s what happens in a market economy. Kenney could tell you that. That is, when his government’s not getting in the way.




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Temporary foreign workers, not sure we need you

  1. It also comes down to the question of how much we should be paying people to pour coffee…..or flip burgers. These are not skilled jobs.

    • True – they aren’t skilled jobs. But we should be filling them with Canadians first. Hard to do if you pay less than welfare. If you can’t fill jobs at current wages, then raise wages. You would have no problem with that concept for skilled workers; why is it an issue for unskilled?

      • Canadians [skilled and unskilled] don’t want the jobs at the market rate…..so businesses look for people who do.

        • Well, that is a over-simplification that the whole article is trying to flesh out. The whole point is that either a business either pays more wages, or perhaps it doesn’t deserve to exist in a free market economy. However, the thing is that the government has created a way to import non-Canadians to do the job because they are more desperate, often willing to live several in a single room or apartment, sleep on the floor, to take back Canadian money to a country where it is more valuable. Is that the best solution? I think another point that is unmade is that the companies, like Mcdonald’s, who have the expertise to take advantage of this programs, are no doubt successfully driving other restaurants out of business who were operating in a more old-fashioned way (i.e. hiring Canadians who walked in the door, paying them enough money to keep them). So, no, it isn’t simply that Canadians don’t want to do these jobs. They don’t want them at crappy wages, no benefits, part-time work, no security, dead-end work when there are and should be other no-skill service jobs that pay better and offer better opportunities/treatment.

          • MacDonald’s and the like offer unskilled low-wage jobs for students on a temporary basis.

            The pay reflects that.

            It’s not meant to be a life-long career involving your marriage, a mortgage, kids…….

            You can’t take the job and then force the employer into better pay either.

            This time the businesses went to foreign workers….next time it’ll be automation.

        • The market rate is not the wages that the employer is offering. The market rate is the wages that people will be willing to work at that job for. The problem is that employers want to set the wages for their jobs below market rate.

          Again, if there is a genuine labour shortage, wages should rise. That’s what market rate means.

          • Or you find labour elsewhere.

  2. Regarding the FWP I know first hand how tough it is to get and to keep workers in small businesses in rual area’s. For our business (bakery-Cafe) wich I just sold 6 months ago will be the end of successful business.

    You can always contact me for more info.

    Kees
    Ladysmith
    Vancouver Island

  3. Hospitality-food industry jobs are skilled in the sense that to accurately remember orders all day, converse with customers & make them happy, is not a mindless task. Quite the opposite. There is a certain talent for pleasing others via serving them food and drink. And working for money is indeed an honourable thing. There are many young people in Canada who would love such entry level jobs. Jobs which teach young people communication and service skills…a valuable stepping stone into other hospitality or retail positions and/or enablement of further education. I say we need to encourage and laud Canadians who work in the food or hospitality industry and not put down their work as insignificent. It is not.

    • Yes, well now you’ve gone through the politically correct ritual…..it’s still unskilled labour.

      And replaceable.

      Which is why it pays so little.

      • Emily, what is your point then? That unskilled work is worthless, thus, it’s great we use other people from other countries, give them money Canadians don’t want to work for, then ship them away before they expect anything better, especially before they believe we’d DARE let unskilled people like them actually try to become immigrants? If that isn’t you point, then what is it?

        • There is no future for the uneducated.

          PS the govt keeps them temporary….I say let them in as full immigrants.

          • “There is no future for the uneducated.”

            And you’re saying these immigrants have a better future than the over-educated natives / natural-born citizens who aren’t getting hired after interviewing?

    • Even if these positions are “unskilled”, depressing the wages of unskilled workers has the side effect of depressing the wages of skilled workers as well. If corporations stopped begging for government handouts and actually paid market rates for these positions, it would be better for everyone.

      • Peace on earth would be nice too.

      • It begins when would-be students refuse to enroll at universities. Boycott them all! Only enroll at vo-tech colleges or whenever your employer pays for it.

        That will put university staff out of jobs but will force the government to do something about this mess. People such as “EmilyOne” sure aren’t helping at all.

  4. Amen! Canada already leads the Western world with the percentage of college graduates (40%), but about half those grads work jobs typically dominated by minors or have proven unable to get hired at all.

    A similarly dire “half the grads are screwed” situation exists with the U.K. (where 35% of the population is a university graduate) and my home country of the U.S. (where 28% of the population holds one or more university degrees).

  5. Does MacLeans require comments to be approved before posting?

  6. If you cut and paste your response, then yes. If you type directly into the textbox, then no.

  7. I find it interesting how MacLean’s refused to post a submitted, well-spoken comment about how college education has proven to NOT be a way up for Canadian grads. Will it refuse this comment?

  8. TEMPORARY FOREIGN WORKERS..Give us bad rep–

    Canadian Filipinos

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