Reforming temporary foreign workers program can't end workforce issues

Temporary foreign worker rules reformed, but tensions remain

The reforms announced today by Jason Kenney, however ambitious and comprehensive, can’t be the last word


Jason Kenney is unlikely to face any serious argument about his boast today that reforms to Canada’s temporary foreign workers program were “not tinkering, not cosmetic,” but rather “profound and fundamental.”

But if the raft of changes the employment minister introduced, with Citizenship Minister Chris Alexander at his side in a supporting role, were indeed complex and comprehensive—enough to fill a 38-page briefing booklet—the core aim can be summed up quite succinctly.

And that objective seems to be stopping the fast-food industry, and perhaps other low-wage corners of the restaurant, hospitality, and retail sectors, from evolving steadily toward the models already represented by picking fruit and vegetables or taking care of kids and seniors.

For we long ago grew accustomed in Canada to the proposition that there’s no way farmers could be expected pay enough to lure Canadians into seasonal agricultural labour, or families could be asked to dig deep enough to attract Canadians into being live-in caregivers.

And because we accept the notion that these hard jobs are inherently different, the federal temporary foreign workers program has separate rules and conditions for those who take care of our very old and very young or bring in our harvests. These programs are not very controversial and not targeted by the new reforms.

What has become highly contentious, however, is alarming evidence that burger franchise owners, and employers with similar low-skill workforce needs, in some parts of the country at least, were increasingly acting as if for their businesses also, somehow, it had become unreasonable to expect employers to hire Canadians.

Kenney referred directly today to how he refused to accept that in British Columbia’s lower mainland, fast-food operations couldn’t locally find, for instance, unemployed young people to work their counters and drive-through windows. He pointed out that over 1,100 Canadian employers now use temporary workers as more than half of their workforces, and he said his policy overhaul will end the spread of this unwelcome “business model.”

The changes announced by Kenney and Alexander range from stricter penalties to better collection of labour-market data. But the key single measure is inarguably that the number of low-wage temporary foreign workers at any given work site is being capped at 10 per cent of the workforce.

This cap will be phased in over three years and its impact is expected to be dramatic. In Alberta, for example, the province with the heaviest reliance on temporary foreign workers, Kenney’s department projects the number will fall from 14,307 in 2013 to just 5,900 in three years. Across the country, the drop is expected to be more than 50 per cent from 31,099 in 2013 low-wage temporary foreign workers to 14,821 in three years.

That’s a huge cut, assuming it comes to pass as the federal bureaucrats designing the changes envision. But one of the main messages of the detailed explanation of the program changes offered today was that to focus primarily on the low-wage, low-skill side of the foreign worker story is to miss a bigger story.

Federal officials took pains to explain that by far the majority of temporary foreign workers in Canada are high-skill, high-wage employees. Some work with international corporations that transferred them here. Others are young people allowed in under reciprocal “youth mobility agreements” Canada has signed with other countries. Still others are researchers or other in-demand specialists.

And then there are those who may not be highly skilled, but are reasonably well-paid, such as foreign workers in meat-packing plants. That’s important because the new 10-per-cent cap on the number of temporary foreign workers in any workplace does not apply to higher-wage occupations. The concept takes a little thinking: the cap comes into force only for those jobs in which the prevailing wage is below the median paid for all employment in the province.

In Manitoba, for example, the median is $19 an hour and in Alberta it’s $24.23 an hour, so the cap applies only to occupations typically paid less than that. If the job normally pays that much or better, then the cap on the number of temporary foreign workers simply does not apply.

This very significant exemption to the main limitation Kenney imposed today again looks clearly designed to narrowly target the low-end, service-sector jobs, and prevent them from going the way of seasonal farm workers and live-in domestic caregivers.

The reforms, as a whole, are likely to be popular. They were unveiled under the no-nonsense slogan, “Putting Canadians first.” Kenney repeatedly said that resorting to recruiting temporary foreign workers should be a “last and limited resort” for Canadian companies.

That sure sounds right. Yet uncomfortable questions about the real nature of the job market nag. If Canadians are readily available all over to be employed in, say, burger joints and mall kiosks, why have quite a few employers been so eager to look abroad? Presumably for the same rationales that we accept when it comes to nannies and apple pickers: non-Canadians tend to make less expensive, more reliable hires.

These reforms will come, as Kenney admits, with what he called “adjustment costs,” as employers rethink how they’ll find the low-wage workers they need. He suggested adjusting won’t be too disruptive or take too long. But if, in the decades to come, Canada is to have an expanding economy, which we want,  in tandem with an aging workforce, which we can’t avoid, these pressures can only grow.

In which case, today’s reforms, however ambitious and comprehensive, can’t be the last word on how Canada copes with the tensions of a tight domestic labour market and the temptations of cheap foreign labour.


Temporary foreign worker rules reformed, but tensions remain

  1. If Canadians won’t do the jobs at the wages offered, then we’ll need even more foreign workers.

    • Or, alternatively, higher wages could be “offered” and we’d all
      pay a nickel more for a burger. It’s all based on a “law” I read
      about somewhere.

      • If you mean minimum wage….it’s less in the ‘hospitality’ field.

        • Law of supply and demand, is what BGLong was getting at – if you can’t find workers at the wages being offered then pay more. It may also mean looking at your business model and finding ways to do more with fewer, but better-skilled, employees.

    • Emily, gets even worse. As investors like me look at this looooonacy and say, time to move more assets offshore as this country is going to fail for the economic stupidity and tax greed.

      I am really trying to convince my wife it no longer pays for us to live and invest in Canada. Just too taxing and poor yields after inflation and taxes to be economical for us to live here in retirement.

      Biggest expat movement right now is retiring people leaving Canada. And they take the money with them as not to be taxed like slaves on income and in tax inflated costs in spending.

      Ottawa can’t create money out of thin air forver, as we saw int he last year, oil, gas, food, housing, gold, appliances, other didn’t go up, the value of currency depreciated for governemtn debt fraud.

      Canda is unsustainable given the current looooonacy and why I now invest ll new money offshore. In fact, now that the loonie is 93 cents, I might just move another 6 digits outside of CAD currency so I don’t take future devaluations.

      Now, just need to convince my lovely wife, we don’t have to shovel snow and pay welfare and bailout taxes.

      • Ottawa CAN create $$$$$ out of thin air, that is what the TFW program is ALL about.
        With each TFW paying @$5000. fees and premiums and now employers being charged $2000. for each TFW, 360,000 TFW’s makes the government a LOT of money ($2,500,000,000)

        Your criteria of low taxes and no snow doesn’t leave you many choices according to the OECD.
        Chile,N. Zealand,Mexico, Isreal,S.Korea,Switzerland,Ireland and Australia. Sorry to see you go.

      • Your wife has more sense than you do.

  2. These guys get do-over after do-over. Ya think it’s easy being
    competent ?

  3. Just another example of bad CRAP legislation being rammed through the House with little or no debate and scrutiny. Instead of crowing about the “revision”, Kenny should be apologizing for the bad legislation in the first place.

  4. Macleans: I’m not impressed with my inability to support or not support a comment. This site has me going to CBC, Globe, NP, and any other site to be able to read the comments, and gauge support for those comments.

    • Macleans is a lot better than CBC, NP and a long shot.

      CBC censors comments if they don’t support belligerence stupid statism, welfare, bailouts debt greed and and free ride mentality.

      CBC prints a lot of propaganda articles of pro-statism and stupidity and doesn’t’ allow comments at all. You can’t challenge the idiocracy.

      But then CBC lives off of other peoples money for nothing waste. They are crown corp union welfare looking to spend other peoples money and whine when they get a cutback and cannot funnel our money to media BS.

      BTW, CBC doesn’t have a down arrow or BS button. But Macleans lets you post a comment on almost every article they publish, so right there, Macleans is superior.

      • Banned by CBC eh? Tsk.

  5. Should kill the TFW program as its just Ottawa union card government bloat.

    Best to have the same function in immigration. If a immigrant, even if not Muslim and say from Mexico applies, if they have a JOB, ANY JOB, they get fast tracked and to the top of the queue. All others take back seat to job holding immigrants.

    So economically stupid are we, we deny tax paying workers work, yet have over 2+ million people on one able-working ages social assistance program or another. Reason they don’t take these jobs as social assistance for able pays more than disabled or working. Many social welfare even includes free drugs and dentist with subsidized housing and $2900/month for 2 adults and 2 kids with drugs, dentist and housing added in.

    So why work for minimum wage? Why work at all? Maybe we should allow disabled people the same deal as most disabled do not get it as good as able people get more.

    System is a loonacy (sp intentional) of statism waste economics and dysfunctional to the core, as the system needs a major overhaul, not just some pandering tweaks.

  6. As the article says, these workers cover the spectrum as far as skills and wages are concerned, including not only burger cooks but researchers and other skilled workers – computers, I imagine, for example.

    When I was job hunting, I would often come across jobs that had specific requirements, such as knowledge of a particular computer software or data analysis program. Sometimes I applied anyway, knowing that it would only take a month or three to learn the program, but it only gave them a reason to reject me. As an older applicant, sometimes I didn’t stand a chance.

    I wonder if that gave some employers the opportunity to write up the list of requirements knowing someone who fit them, and who they would have an excuse to hire. If we accept that nepotism and favouritism are common then we would have to admit this happens, and as employers and managers are increasingly hiring from abroad, claiming our own Canadians are not qualified, how can such a practice be clamped down on.

    I knew one person who got a job I had applied for, and she didn’t even have the qualifications to teach it. But it didn’t matter. They could hire anyone they chose to.

    I would have liked to have seen the qualifications and experience of the person who go hired for the jobs I applied for and didn’t get, but I don’t believe that is common practice, to pass that knowledge out. But when you encounter people in jobs that require a person to know how to spell and yet they can’t, or to use grammar well, and they can’t, it does lead one to wonder how they got the job in the first place.