Recently, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney expressed surprise that the demand for temporary foreign workers has not gone down since the recession.
The Globe and Mail reported Minister Kenney as saying, “I expected to see a decline, but I was quite surprised to actually see demand for temporary foreign workers steady in the first quarter of this year, and down only slightly in the second quarter.”
However, this steady demand for temporary foreign workers should not be surprising to Minister Kenney at all. This steady demand is, in fact, the inevitable result of the temporary foreign worker program and the current government’s approach to immigration.
The program was developed seven years ago as a means to fill jobs shortages quickly. Initially billed as a way to provide workers quickly for the Alberta oil boom, the program grew to welcome over 100,000 workers in 2004.
But now the program has become so much more. In 2008 alone, 193,000 temporary foreign workers came to Canada, almost equal to the number of permanent residents Canada accepted.
This increase has occurred in part because of changes to Canada’s immigration legislation. In 2008, the government introduced a fast-track option for employers seeking temporary foreign workers. Employers seeking to hire temporary foreign workers must first apply for a Labour Market Opinion with Human Resources and Services Development Canada, which establishes that there are no Canadians available to fill those jobs.
This process usually takes five months, but under the new Expedited Labour Market Opinion program, it takes a mere five days. And once it is established that a need exists, there is no need to reapply. With these new arrangements, employers are able to find labour faster, and it will likely be cheaper than hiring Canadian employees. Also, because they do not need to reapply, there is no way to verify if the need changes or Canadian workers are now available.
This same legislation gave the Minister of Immigration discretionary powers to give preference to certain occupations in the immigration selection process.
And this leads to the second reason why it is no surprise that the demand for temporary foreign workers has remained steady. There has been a clear increase in temporary foreign workers, while the number of immigrants and permanent residents has plateaued. This increase reveals a significant shift in focus of Canada’s immigration program, from recruiting skilled workers who would become permanent residents, to focusing on temporary workers who come to Canada on short work visas and perform low-skill jobs.
An unsurprising problem
These reasons are cause for concern. This focus on filling temporary work is at best a stopgap measure, and reveals a deep problem in the way Canada welcomes newcomers and in how we build our country.
How we welcome newcomers – temporary or not – is not just about cheaply filling temporary work. It is also about what we offer to them once they are here – for higher skilled workers, this comes in the form of permanent residency.
Temporary foreign workers, on the other hand, are not offered the same opportunity. Our responsibility to them seems to start at the beginning of their contract and end once the work is done. The danger then lies in what happens next: they can return home and always reapply for the program, or, if they do not qualify for immigration, they can disappear into the growing ranks of illegal immigrants within Canada.
In order to prevent this group from growing further, Canada needs to develop a different response. While a Canadian Experience Class has been introduced into immigration policy, allowing temporary foreign workers to apply for permanent residency without leaving Canada, Carol Goar points out that “most low-skilled foreigners had little hope of meeting Canada's admission criteria. That meant they would either have to leave or attempt to stay illegally.”
A May report by the Citizenship and Immigration committee of the House of Commons recommended some changes. First, it recommended the creation of a “path to permanent residency” accessible to all temporary foreign workers. For families of temporary foreign workers, the committee recommended they be eligible for an open work permit in Canada.
These and other recommendations would go a long way in changing how temporary foreign workers are welcomed into Canada. It would also go a long way towards building a sustainable employment force, rather than focusing on the stopgap option that is temporary work.
Immigration reforms are rumoured to be imminent this fall. As part of these reforms, developing a cohesive, thoughtful approach to immigration, including those we welcome on a temporary basis, would bring much needed life and welcome to our current system.