Changes to Canada’s temporary foreign worker program could change “temporary” to “permanent”
The case for temporary foreign workers
by Robbie Jeffrey
In 2013, 270 workers at Husky Energy’s Sunrise project were laid off and replaced by foreign workers. Four months later, 65 ironworkers represented by the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) lost their jobs at Imperial Oil’s Kearl Oil Sands Project to, allegedly, Croatians hired for half the normal wage. These were just two of many high-profile aberrations that further inflamed the debate about temporary foreign workers.
The discourse was so heated because when national identity is at issue, simple propositions raise complicated questions. The controversial program aims to solve an elementary mathematical problem: too many jobs and too few available workers. But its issues are myriad. What do Canadian companies owe Canadians, and what do Canadians owe foreigners?
In December, beginning what promises to be an overhaul of the program, the federal government scrapped the “four in, four out” rule, which set the length of the workers’ stay and exile before returning to four years in each case. The requirement worked for no one – not for the industries left without workers, like meat processing, beekeeping and hospitality; not for the unemployed Canadian, whose job prospects were unaffected; not for the foreign worker, whose life was upended every time she was forced to leave a job her employer wished she could keep. It seemed merely to appease some abstract concern that no one held.
Alberta stands to benefit from these changes – and, hopefully, the changes to come. The province has the highest per-capita number of foreign workers and, even in a downturn, suffers from labour shortages. Alberta even has its own occupation-specific pilot project under the program to help fill the vacuum of tradespeople. Temporary foreign workers are the backbone of entire sectors, and workers spend much of their income within the province. With a path to permanent residence, then citizenship, they and their children will build lives here, attend post-secondary schools, and start businesses that will employ even more people.
There’s cause for caution, no doubt. Above all, the government needs to be firm: The program cannot allow corporations to replace Canadian workers with foreign workers in pursuit of a swollen bottom line. Critics like the AFL warn of dwindling wages, but in a country where fewer workers belong to unions and more fear for their job security, a declining wage floor will always be a concern. The program has been in effect since the 1970s, but the number of permit-holders went from about 15,000 in 1994 to 37,000 a decade later. By 2015, there were more than 100,000 temporary workers in the province, and many lessons were learned the hard way. Employees were once bound to a single employer, and employers could pay 15 per cent less than minimum wage. Prospective workers often had to list a language other than English or French, meaning those with the clearest path to integration and citizenship rarely had the opportunity.
Many of these changes will benefit Alberta and it’s worth remembering that many of them were fought for and won by migrant-worker coalitions and non-profit organizations. There are countless stories of abuse gone unreported, and changes to work-permit applications mean months of unemployment for workers who leave hostile work environments or lose their jobs. In the National Observer, Natalie Drolet, a lawyer with the West Coast Domestic Workers’ Association, said roughly one in three of her clients has experienced some form of abuse. Extortion is a serious problem, too, and though migrant workers pay into Employment Insurance, they aren’t eligible to receive it. This illuminates another complicated question concerning national identity: How should Canadians, and Canadian businesses, treat the most vulnerable people? Since they’re good for business, business needs to fight to improve conditions for the workers on whom they depend.