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Don't slam shut Canada's doors on foreign workers

Architect Eva Omes, left, gave Eunice Rivera Gracia, the contacts and confidence to start applying for jobs in Canada.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. MOCZULSKI

The uproar over Canada's temporary foreign worker program has sparked a heated debate over the country's approach to immigration. But while some are concerned over the program's growth and management, that doesn't mean the country should to slam its doors.

Immigration is a vital source of both work force and population growth as the population ages and birth rates slow. At some point this decade, it will account for all of Canada's net labour market growth.

Plenty of studies show immigration drives innovation, entrepreneurship and bolsters Canada's trade ties with the world – all of which this country desperately needs.

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Yet some immigration experts are concerned about the growth and breadth of Canada's temporary worker program, which reached more than 300,000 last year.

One concern is the temporary aspect: workers come to Canada, acquire skills and experience – and then leave. Some are subject to more precarious working conditions and lower wages. The broader effect is a dampening on wages and training, says Ratna Omidvar, president of the Maytree Foundation and an expert in immigration policy.

Several European countries have long used guest worker policies – which are not something Canada should emulate because they erode social cohesion, create a two-tiered work force and strengthen the underground economy, she says (and as The Globe and Mail's Doug Saunders argued this weekend).

"There's a lesson to be learned from Germany's guest worker program," Ms. Omidvar adds. "People didn't choose to leave, they didn't integrate ... there's a generational impact in Germany that is still felt today."

Canada should still run a temporary foreign worker program for niche areas, such as visiting artists, "but it should be a very limited one," she says, adding that policy should focus on "the long-term interests of the nation" rather than short-term stop-gaps in the labour market.

Some economists have argued that the influx of temporary foreign workers has a larger impact on immigrants as both groups compete for work.

Krishen Rangasamy, Montreal-based senior economist at National Bank Financial, is concerned about the TFW program's impact on immigrants, many of whom come to Canada with strong skills and qualifications and wind up underemployed.

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"We already have a pool of very talented immigrants in Canada. If we just bridge them [to appropriate jobs], that would help the whole economy – giving labour to companies and boosting those immigrant households."

Effective – and affordable – programs do exist to improve labour market outcomes, as Report on Business reporter Richard Blackwell recently explored in a story about mentorship.

They're needed. As of last month, the jobless rate among immigrants was a percentage point higher, at 8.3 per cent, than among the Canadian-born population. It's most acute among recent newcomers, where the unemployment rate stands at 14 per cent – a notch higher than year-ago levels.

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About the Author

Tavia Grant has worked at The Globe and Mail since early 2005, covering topics from employment and currency markets to trade, microfinance and Latin American economies. She previously worked for Bloomberg News in Toronto and Zurich, writing on mining, stocks, currencies and secret Swiss bank accounts. More

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