05/09/2014 06:16 EDT | Updated 07/09/2014 05:59 EDT

Setting the Record Straight on Temporary Foreign Workers

It seems the recent firestorm around the Temporary Foreign Worker program has brought out the very best, as well as the very worst, in Canadians. The program has some flaws. But we all need to take a deep breath and avoid the temptation to convict an employer based on a media story.

Sam Edwards via Getty Images

It seems the recent firestorm around the Temporary Foreign Worker program has brought out the very best, as well as the very worst, in Canadians.

I have appreciated the many conversations and debates that I've been a part of over the last several weeks on this issue, both public and private, and it's nice to see the passion stirred up among my fellow Canadians on both sides of the conversation.

Admittedly, this is a tough issue. We all want Canadians to be at the front of the line for jobs. On the other hand, the issue has also brought out some less desirable responses. Beyond the xenophobia that this kind of issue stirs up, I've also seen a mob mentality take shape. As public outrage has grown, I've seen facts and evidence fall by the wayside in favour of broad oversimplification, flat-out misinformation and piling on.

In response to direct questions from journalists, I've made a number of statements about the TFWP over the last few weeks. Some people have tried to twist and turn them in an effort to discredit our arguments, and the program. The Huffington Post neatly summarized what they deemed as some of my more "colourful assertions" about the program based on a union blog in the same vein.

So, to set the record straight and do my part to advance the national conversation on this important issue, I would like to clear up what I've actually said about the program and address some of the statements that have been attributed to me incorrectly:

"Canadians don't show up for work."

The Vancouver Sun article referenced by HuffPost suggests I said only one out of five candidates for a job shows up for work, but there was a missing piece. I was actually describing some information shared by a Vancouver owner of several Quick Service Restaurants. I was told that for every five interviews his team schedules with candidates for positions, only one person will show-up. Simply filling out a job application does not make you available for work.

"Foreign workers save, don't take, Canadians jobs."

This one is true, I did say it, and I'll say it again. Many employers tell me that they wouldn't be able to stay in business without TFWs for certain jobs. As TFWs help them keep their doors open, they are able to employ Canadian workers as well. Restaurants often report that they can find Canadian servers, but struggle to find cooks. A restaurant without a cook doesn't stay open very long.

"Foreigners are harder-working than Canadians."

As outlined in the actual quote, I said that some small business owners rank TFWs among their most productive employees. In most cases, small business owners tell me that they have many terrific, hard-working Canadian staff, but just need more of them. They've been pleased to supplement their Canadian workforce with some strong foreign workers in job categories that are typically very hard to fill.

"There are lots of jobs Canadians don't want to do."

I said this. I know it is hard for many to get their heads around the fact that employers are not finding people to do entry level jobs in as large numbers as in the past, but it doesn't make it untrue. While economists may report the country has no macro-level skills or labour shortage, this doesn't mean that there aren't all sorts of problematic pockets in the labour force.

Canada has among the highest level of post-secondary education in the world. While this indicator is positive on many levels, it means that many Canadians are not interested in jobs in what may be perceived as entry level positions or sectors. Wages may be part of the issue in some areas, but we have to be careful not to tell young people that their lives have no meaning unless they go to a traditional university.

"Restaurants will close because of the TFW suspension."

True. In some parts of Canada and in some sectors, businesses simply don't have the option to hire Canadians. Particularly in resource intensive regions, young people who may have otherwise worked at the restaurant or grocery store may all make far more in the oil and gas sector. Options for many firms, such as food services, can be very limited. Firms have tried recruiting in other provinces, but it is pulling teeth to get Canadians to move where the jobs are. Recent research from the Canadian Employee Relocation Council reveals that 55 per cent of Canadians would not move for any circumstance, putting a reality check to the idea that all employers in provinces with hot economies must do is bump up wages.

I've talked to several business owners who do not know where to start with the recent moratorium. Some, like a Scarborough Indian restaurant, tell me they will have to shut their doors as they cannot find the very specialized cooks they need.

In other cases, restaurants will have to reduce hours, close on certain days and may face spontaneous closures as have been occurring for some time in Alberta. The longer the moratorium lasts, the more certain businesses will be at risk.

The Temporary Foreign Worker program has some flaws. But we all need to take a deep breath and avoid the temptation to convict an employer based on a media story. Only 2 per cent of the entire restaurant business is staffed by TFWs, but if you looked at the news coverage, you'd think it was every second person.

As for the title of the HuffPost story, I was making the point that we shouldn't assume that the person greeting us at a restaurant counter is a foreign worker. They are far more likely to be a Canadian citizen or permanent resident. But in every case, we should ensure no one feels unwelcome or unwanted as we debate the merits of the program.


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