Canada should place a limit on the number of temporary foreign workers it allows into the country, before the program grows too large and threatens Canadians’ livelihoods, says a new report from the Institute for Research on Public Policy.
The report, written by Carleton University labour economics professor Christopher Worswick, finds “the growth in the number of temporary foreign workers numbers is a cause for concern. Its timing, which coincides with a period of weakness in the Canadian economy, is especially troubling.”
Canada’s temporary foreign workers (TFW) program became a hot-button issue this year when it emerged that laid-off information technology workers at RBC were asked to the train temporary foreign workers hired to replace them.
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The controversy set off a debate about the value of the TFW program, with some labour groups calling for an elimination of the program. Business groups argue they need the program to fill jobs Canadians won’t do.
The IRPP report says a TFW program of some sort is indeed useful, because in some sectors of the economy, employers would have to raise wages by an enormous amount to attract workers, or shut down altogether, without some access to foreign labour.
But a cap on the total number of foreign workers in Canada would help to ensure employers are using the program where labour shortages actually exist, and not simply to drive down wages, the report said.
Worswick is not the only one concerned by the rapid rise in the number of TFWs in Canada in recent years. A report from the Conference Board of Canada found the number of TFWs has more than doubled — to some 360,000 today — in the past seven years. Worswick's own research pegs the number of TFWs at 213,000 as of last year, but his numbers also show a near-doubling since 2005.
“There are ongoing concerns that temporary foreign workers may take jobs from young Canadians entering the labour market and lower-skilled Canadians,” the report says.
Following the RBC controversy, the Harper government tightened rules on employers using TFWs. It eliminated the “15 per cent rule” that allowed employers to pay TFWs 15 per cent below the median wage for the job in question, provided they had been paying Canadian employees that rate as well.
The government also eliminated a “fast-track” TFW program, instituted a fee for companies applying for a TFW permit, and strengthened the government’s ability to revoke TFW permits if the program is abused. However, Employment Minister Jason Kenney has suggested the fast-track program could return, though only for high-paying, high-skilled jobs.
The changes have angered some industry groups. They “will make it even more difficult for small businesses to fill their labour needs,” the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) said.
“The practical impact on small businesses, especially those in rural areas, will be massive. … This knee-jerk reaction to add more restrictions and red tape to the program could do serious harm to Canada’s small businesses, our economy and our communities,” CFIB said.
The IRPP report praised the Harper government’s changes, calling them steps in the right direction, but added that policymakers should be looking at further reforms.
Chief among them is a cap on the total number of TFWs admitted into Canada, the report said.
A poll taken late last year, before the RBC controversy, found Canadians are largely cool to the TFW program, with 68 per cent either “opposed” or “somewhat opposed” to the program.