The temporary foreign worker program (TFWP) has been a fixture in Canadian immigration policy since 1973. The program was created to fill vacant employment positions throughout Canada, although it initially was limited to allowing only foreign agricultural workers and live-in caregivers entry to Canada. However, the program has been expanded to allow low-skilled workers entry to complete a wider range of unfilled jobs in Canada. Nevertheless, the program has been the center of controversy in recent years, with proponents citing its vital role in filling vacant jobs, while opponents arguing that it has negatively impacted job-seeking Canadians while also exploiting foreign workers.
The TFWP has experienced a great deal of growth from its inception to 2011. Reforms introduced in 2006 have reduced the amount of time businesses must advertise to attract local workers. In addition, changes have promoted faster entry and work permit extensions from 1 to 2 years. In 2011, the government further extended permit durations to a maximum of 4 years, though they prohibited workers who have reached this limit from applying to the program for another 4 years.
However, the program began to experience significant changes in 2012. The Conservative government announced minimum wage cuts for foreign workers, permitting these employers to pay Foreign Workers less than the Canadian minimum wage. These cuts were up to 15 per cent for high skilled workers, and 5 per cent for low-skilled workers, with agricultural workers and live-in caregivers exempt from these wage decreases. Advocacy groups have labeled this policy to be discriminatory against migrant workers, arguing that such policies exacerbate already low wages for workers.
One worker from India, Senthil Thevar, described documentation to promise him between $15 – $18 per hour for different employment contracts. However, he was actually paid less than minimum wage, working 12-hour days but earning only $2,000 per month in 2012.
Assuming that Thevar worked 6 days per week, this means he was paid only $6.95 per hour. Regardless, the Conservative government maintained that employers were indeed paying temporary foreign workers more than the average Canadian, with wage cuts working to equate pay discrepancies between the working populations.
In 2014, the TFWP was the focus of greater reform. Some of these reforms were in response to scandals involving the TFWP. In 2013, CBC News reported that RBC was replacing Canadian staff with workers from India, even using current staff to train these workers before terminating the Canadian staff members’ contracts. Furthermore McDonald’s came under fire in 2014, with reports of one Victoria franchisee choosing to hire temporary workers over qualified Canadians. The government quickly reacted to these events, strengthening the Labour Market Impact Assessment that requires businesses to provide information on their Canadian hiring attempts before resulting to the TFWP. Additionally, employers with 10 or more employees could only hire 10 per cent of their workforce through the TFWP, and areas with unemployment of 6 per cent or higher could not use the program. This, combined with stronger enforcement and penalties, has had significant implications for the program’s effectiveness, and for the employment prospects of migrant workers.
While these changes have been applauded by those affected by job cuts, it has been criticized by groups using the TFWP for economic success. The Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses has deemed the changes to be “a gross overreaction to a handful of negative stories”. Other groups, such as the P.E.I’s Fishermen’s Association, have argued for the relaxation of these restrictions, especially when no Canadians can be found to fill open positions.
These arguments have left the TFWP on the federal government’s radar. Last Wednesday, MaryAnn Mihychuck, the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour stated that the Liberal government will conduct a parliamentary review of the TFWP. The Minister emphasized that the review will focus on creating proposals aimed at fixing the program. Key concerns with the TFWP include not only the hiring of workers, but also the poor health and safety standards associated with these positions.
A report by the Metcalf foundation found that migrant workers were often owed wages by their employer, were terminated without termination pay or notice, and were charged a fee for temporary work, among others.
These pay discrepancies are even more shocking given that migrant workers actually pay contributions under the Employment Insurance Act, and are entitled to benefits when employed in Canada. Additionally, tied work permits limit the actions of temporary workers, who can only work for a specific employer to complete the job specified on the permit. Given that employers also provided housing to workers, this significantly undermines their ability to address their concerns and demand better treatment.
Regardless, this announcement comes at a time of great change in the Canadian economy, with oil prices dropping, and unemployment on the rise. However, other policies, such as our generous Employment Insurance, encourage the status quo by allowing Canadians to utilize their benefits while continuing to search for higher-skilled employment opportunities. Given these new economic conditions, several questions come to mind: Are employers still having difficulty filling positions? How has our need for temporary foreign workers changed? How has the composition of the Canadian workforce changed? Undoubtedly, the TFWP is an important aspect of our economic and immigration policies, and it remains to be seen how it will be affected by domestic and international economic forces.
Alyssa Wali is a 2016 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from Queen’s University, where she completed a major in Global Development Studies, and a minor in Political Studies. Alyssa’s main areas of interest include environmental policy, educational policy and labour policy.