There’s only one reason for Canada to have a temporary-foreign-worker program: to fill positions that are both temporary and important to the competitiveness of the Canadian economy, in industries that export or compete against imports.
With few exceptions, every person in the Canadian labour market – everyone with a job or looking for one – should be a Canadian, or an immigrant on the path to becoming a Canadian. Canada is an immigrant society, and a country of equal citizens. It’s not a guest-worker society. This isn’t Qatar.
Does it make sense to allow Canadian fast-food franchises to hire temporary workers from overseas? No. The jobs in question are permanent. And unlike agriculture, which is exposed to foreign competition and can at least argue it needs to bring in seasonal help to remain competitive by keeping costs down, restaurants and similar service industries face no challenge from imports. Their only competitors are the restaurant next door, or down the street. Using temporary foreign workers to keep wages down – at minimum wage, or below – is something government policy should be trying to prevent. Instead, it has to some degree encouraged it.
During the early 2010s, Ottawa let the temporary-foreign-worker program explode in size. Just shy of 200,000 entered the country under the program at its peak in 2012. That meant Canada was heading toward taking in as many guest workers as immigrants. The Harper government realized its mistake and scaled the program back. After a critical 2017 report from the auditor-general, so did the Trudeau Liberals.
As recent Globe and Mail investigations have found, the temporary-foreign-worker system is still very much alive and very much prone to abuses. It still seems to be almost designed for the exploitation of vulnerable, low-wage migrants.
And there’s another victim here: Canadians. Particularly low-income Canadians.
There are times where a company may need a specialized employee for a short stint, someone who is impossible to find in Canada. By all means, give them the ability to go overseas to find this valuable temporary worker. (And even better: Encourage the temp to become a landed immigrant and contribute to this country for the rest of their life, as a Canadian.)
And there are also labour-intensive, low-wage industries exposed to foreign competition – from seasonal fruit picking to seasonal fish processing – that have long argued they need temporary foreign workers because few Canadians will take these jobs, particularly at a wage low enough to make these enterprises internationally competitive.
But what The Globe investigations found are cases of low-wage service industries, such as fast food, using a combination of loopholes and illegal, but easily hidden practices to staff up with temporary foreign workers who can be abused, underpaid and even forced to remit some of their wages to the employer. In return, employers and shady immigration consultants will sign often false papers giving a migrant the needed permission to come to Canada, or once in Canada to jump from the temporary stream to the immigration stream.
And because hiring under the traditional temporary-foreign-worker program has become more difficult, the nexus of abuse has expanded to include foreign students. A student visa to an expensive private career college can be dangled as a path into this country’s job market, creating new opportunities for the unscrupulous to rip off the desperate – people willing to do almost anything to come to Canada.
The Liberal government recently responded to the Globe series by announcing that the temporary-foreign-worker rules, under which a participant must work for the sponsoring employer and no one else, would be eased. It’s about time. A class of workers who are basically owned by their employer, who cannot move to another job and who dare not complain about abuse, is as un-Canadian as can be.
But the whole idea of temporary foreign workers – guest labour with reduced rights – is basically un-Canadian.
It can be justified in some limited circumstances, from high tech to agriculture. But when the system is used to hire low-wage workers in low-wage service sectors, it pushes down wages and worsens working conditions in those industries. That harms not just desperate people from overseas, but also Canadian citizens who would otherwise be doing those jobs – Canadians who are already struggling at the bottom of the job market.