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.