Canadians would like to think that we could never be like certain oil-rich Persian Gulf nations who allow employers to import temporary foreign workers, but not their families, pay dirt-poor wages and hold them hostage as indentured labour tethered to their master.
But our Temporary Foreign Worker Program allows precisely that. It allows employers to import cheap foreign labour, without families, mostly for low-end jobs for short periods. The temps are tied to their employer who may mistreat them. That Canadian employers do not exploit foreign workers quite the way certain Middle Eastern countries do is not saying much.
The program, besides undermining Canadian values, has depressed wages in certain regions, adding to the already unacceptable level of inequity between rich and poor.
It allowed too many employers, about 25,000, to rely too much on cheap foreign labour. About 1,100 of those employers rely on foreigners for more than half their total workforce. This is scandalous in times of high unemployment, especially among our youth and new immigrants, whose jobless rate is double the national average, not to mention those middle-aged Canadians who have been laid off and cannot get back into the workforce.
As of Dec. 1, 2013, there were 338,000 temporary foreign workers officially. But the total may be as high as 500,000. Since Canada has no exit controls, there’s no way of knowing how many went underground at the end of their visas, creating a new underclass, as in Europe.
The program was started under Jean Chrétien but expanded under Harper Minister Jason Kenney. He went about overhauling the entire system but showed particular zeal for importing cheap labour. He did so in conjunction with the Conservative belief that too many Canadians were too lazy or too spoiled by employment insurance benefits to work. The Tories tightened the insurance rules and opened the floodgates to foreign workers, in the name of ostensible skills shortages.
Kenney allowed the program to grow even when the economy slowed down. He let employers in some sectors hire more foreign workers than Canadians. At times, he brought more temporary foreign workers into Canada than skilled new landed immigrants.
Now he is repositioning himself as a saviour of a program gone terribly wrong.
He promises to better control the entry of low-skilled foreign temps; raise the fee for employers to hire foreigners; deny the hotel, fast-food, retail, security and other sectors access to the program in areas of high unemployment; allow temps to stay only two years, not four; force companies with more than 10 employees to hire only up to a tenth of their work force from abroad; have employers document how many Canadians applied for the job and how many were interviewed, etc.
Still, he is exempting employers with fewer than 10 employees from the 10 per cent cap, meaning that all nine employees of a small business may still be foreigners. He does nothing about improving the working conditions of the temporary workers.
He expects the changes to reduce the number of low-wage temporary foreign workers to 16,000 in two years. That’s 16,000 too many.
Put bluntly, the program is not fixable. It needs to be nixed, beyond its limited use for seasonal farm workers and caregivers for infants and the elderly. Even for those two categories, we need to rethink whether exploiting poor Third World workers in tedious jobs at low wages for short periods fits our collective sense of who we are and what that says about Canada.
Sure there are labour shortages in Canada – in certain jobs, in certain regions. However, where labour shortages exist, they should be addressed by recruiting Canadians at competitive wages.
Today’s lead Globe editorial addresses the Temporary Foreign Worker Program in the context of criticism from Alberta’s new premier, Jim Prentice, that the tightening up of the program by Kenney is going too far.
It says something about how out-of-control the program had become when Canada’s premier pro-business newspaper runs a lead editorial commending the pro-business Harper governement for some minor reforms to the program that are commendable in themsleves, but still fall far short of fixing the problems the program created.
A link to the Globe editorial is provided below. Also provided is a link to another Globe article which contains a quote from Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan refuting Premier Prentice. Mr. McGowan’s quote nicely sums up News For Ontario’s 99% views on the program:
“The temporary foreign worker program is a train wreck and should be scrapped. This is not a program that can be tweaked or reformed around the edges,” Mr. McGowan said. “As long as this program exists, whether it’s tweaked at the margins or not, employers are going to find ways of using temporary foreign workers as pawns to drive down wages and conditions.”
Amen Mr. McGowan!