Column: Foreign worker program needs a strong rewrite

Forty years later, foreign temps are snapping up routine jobs right under Canadians’ noses and some employers are laying off local employees

The original idea behind the Temporary Foreign Worker Program which began in 1973 was to attract uniquely skilled (think blue chip/red seal level) workers to fill in the unemployment gap that could not be filled by Canadians or permanent residents.

According to the federal government, “The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) allows Canadian employers to hire foreign nationals to fill temporary labour and skill shortages when qualified Canadian citizens or permanent residents are not available.”

Forty years later, foreign temps are now not only snapping up routine jobs right under Canadians’ noses but some employers are laying off local employees and replacing them with lower-paid foreign workers.

And it’s across the board from truck drivers, construction workers and helicopter pilots to berry pickers and hamburger jockeys. Last year the Royal Bank, with a very corporate red face, had to apologize for laying off Canadian IT workers due to an ‘outsourcing’ management decision. The displaced were quickly offered comparable job opportunities. Then there was that HD Mining debacle at the Murray River coal mine when the company wanted to bring in 201 Chinese workers, listing an ability to speak Mandarin as a job requirement when it applied for a TFW permit.

Last month the C.D. Howe Institute reported on a survey of Vancouver construction workers who believed TFWs adversely affected their ability to find work with 64 per cent of them stating that the foreign workers were not needed.

What happened?

In the past decade, the program has had several re-writes, allegedly because of labour shortages, and the number of temporary foreign workers soared from 101,000 in 2002 to 338,000 in 2013 while the unemployment rate stayed the same at 7.2 per cent. Recently three McDonald’s outlets in Victoria allegedly cut back on local employees’ hours while hiring foreign workers full-time.

With the exposure of Victoria’s McDebacle, the feds have slapped a moratorium on TFWs for the fast-food industry. Some are calling foul and claiming that Employment and Social Development Minister Jason Kenney over-reacted to a failed system. But the real elephant at the drive-through are employment stats showing foreign workers actually increase unemployment numbers.

Policy changes over the last decade to ease the hiring process took place even though there was little evidence of shortage of Canadian workers. As a result, the federal program accelerated the rise in unemployment by nearly four per cent in Alberta and British Columbia.

The program which gave employers access to temporary “uniquely skilled” people has now morphed into a program that is a permanent large scale labour pool from which any industry can draw workers at any skill level. It has created an addictive mindset in which everyone loses. Canadians can’t get jobs, wages are kept artificially low, the foreign workers put up with abuse for fear of job loss and deportation, and the program itself lacks sufficient data for anyone to know if labour shortages actually exist.

You bet labour unions and opposition parties are upset. Liberal immigration critic John McCallum has demanded a full audit of the program and Auditor General Michael Ferguson is keeping that door open.

According to the Howe report, the program should give employers access to a temporary workforce only for a short period until domestic workers are available and not use the program as a way to get around current hiring requirements.

In 2013 the feds made changes to the program to tighten regulations, provide better protection of the Canadian labour market, restrict the use of non-official languages, and improve the reach of advertising to attract more Canadians. Not helping. Many Canadian companies still view foreign labour essential to their bottom line.

It’s time to give jobs to Canadians first.