Should We End the Temporary Foreign Worker Program?

Jason Foster, the associate professor of human resources and labour relations at Athabasca University, says yes.

Canada has had migrant worker programs since the 1960s. For most of this time the migrant workers were mainly artists, scientists, university instructors and other higher-skilled occupations. There were streams for live-in caregivers and agricultural workers, which have long had issues with exploitation and poor working conditions. Overall, these programs played a minor role in Canada’s labour market policy.

This changed in 2002 when, in response to demands from employer groups, the federal government launched a low-skill pilot that opened the program to lower-skilled occupations in many sectors. The program exploded, from under 70,000 to almost 400,000 temporary foreign workers (TFWs) at its peak in 2014. Since 2002 the program has been a political football, with a succession of reactive, contradictory changes that vacillated between tightening and loosening rules. For the past 18 years the program has been directionless and adrift.

TFWs themselves have paid the price for this policy and political failure. The program is rife with abuse. Workers experience multiple levels of mistreatment. Their jobs disappear upon arrival. They’re paid less than promised or not paid for overtime. They’re required to perform demeaning personal tasks for their employer. They’re charged exorbitant rates for substandard, employer-provided housing. They experience racism and sexism in the workplace. All under the threat of deportation if they don’t comply. Then, when the employer no longer needs them, their permit expires and they’re told to go home, even if they’ve been living in Canada for up to 10 years.

COVID-19 has brought these deplorable conditions into stark focus, with deadly outbreaks among farmworkers in Ontario and health and meatpacking plant workers in Alberta. These were directly caused by unsafe living and working conditions created by employers. The conditions aren’t the fault of “a few bad apples.” The very structure of the program makes TFWs vulnerable to exploitation. Their visas restrict labour market mobility, indicating in which region and occupation and for which employer they can work. They can’t easily quit and find a new job. There are few avenues to permanent residency. These men and women were lured to Canada with a promise of a better life. Many were lied to about the prospects of permanent residency. They came, they followed the rules, they worked hard. Then the rules changed and they were left in the lurch.

We need an overhaul of our migrant labour programs. We should provide permanent residency to all TFWs in Canada, including amnesty for those without status. And then we need to rethink the role of migrant workers in the labour market. We should ensure that marginalized workers, such as youth, women and Indigenous and racialized workers, are equitably employed. And we need to evaluate which occupations are in truly short supply and design long-term solutions to address this, including reforms to immigration policy.

 

Philip Cross, the senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and former Statistics Canada economist, says no.

Temporary foreign workers have a small but crucial place in Canada’s labour force. As became painfully evident last year when cross-border travel restrictions due to COVID disrupted the inflow of TFWs, there is simply no domestic alternative for some sectors, notably agriculture. As unemployment soared in summer of 2020, Canada’s farmers discovered that even when domestic labour can be found, its productivity is nowhere near that of experienced TFWs.

The TFW program is an ideal gateway for prospective permanent residents to enter Canada. It ensures that immigrants take jobs that can’t be filled by Canadians and allows both the immigrant and the employer to decide if the worker is a good fit. We should make it easier for temporary workers to apply, if they choose, for permanent residency after a few years of successful work assignments in Canada.

Albertans may have a particularly bad impression of the TFW program owing to 2007 and 2008. At that time, severe labour shortages drove many employers to import low-skilled employees in workplaces such as hotels and restaurants. The Alberta labour market was so tight in 2007 that Statistics Canada could find only 17,000 of the 27,000 enumerators needed for the census, so it called in its own employees from as far away as the Ottawa headquarters to fill the gap. Shortages force employers to find creative short-term solutions. The influx of TFWs into Alberta fell precipitously with the onset of recession in 2008, and is no longer a pressing issue.

TFWs are hardly the low-cost labour source that many fear are damping wages. The fact that employers accept all the costs of importing TFWs—including a non-refundable $275 application fee, $150 for a visa, paying return airfare in advance, and registration in the provincial workers’ compensation plan—shows that TFWs are a costly last resort for employers when Canadians aren’t available, something aggravated by the steady withdrawal of our teenagers from the labour market.

There are plenty of flaws with the TFW program, as outlined in a 2017 federal Auditor General’s review. Too easily it can be manipulated to become a thinly disguised scheme for family unification, by specifying stringent language requirements for caregivers. It is inexcusable that even one TFW receives Employment Insurance. More generally, the Canada Border Security Agency must seriously undertake ensuring these workers leave the country when their permit expires. The TFW program is not a shortcut for permanent entry into Canada.

All of these flaws, however, can be addressed with a more attentive civil service, not by penalizing employers by cutting off a supply of experienced, productive workers. It would be the height of irony that just as the new Biden administration makes the US a more welcoming place for immigrants, Canada sends the world the exact opposite message of Trump-like hostility to outsiders.

 

Jason Foster responds to Philip Cross

The argument put forth by Philip Cross epitomizes the central problem with the temporary foreign worker program (TFWP): It is premised upon a belief that these workers are disposable, that we can bring them in and ship them back home as we wish. There is something fundamentally demeaning in treating people in this manner.

Cross suggests issues with the TFWP are in the past. However, at the end of 2019 there were 10,000 TFWs and an additional 25,000 workers under the sister International Mobility Program living in Alberta. While that is down from the 80,000 at the program’s peak in 2014, it remains a significant number and their mistreatment at the hands of exploitative employers continues to be a problem. Just because the program does not make headlines does not mean the problems have disappeared.

The structure of the TFWP breeds a concerning disregard for the well-being of these workers because it encourages Canadians to view them as nothing more than disposable labour. A perfect example of this disregard is Cross’s statement that “it is inexcusable that even one TFW receives Employment Insurance.” I must remind him those workers pay EI premiums like every other worker, and their work permit does not disintegrate if they get laid off. If their permit is valid, they are legally entitled to remain in Canada and should be permitted access to programs they pay into, just like every other worker. The suggestion that the moment we no longer need their labour they should be packed up and sent home is degrading and dehumanizing.

Similarly, Cross takes exception to TFWs remaining in Canada after their permit expires. On the surface this appears a reasonable position. However, it ignores the realities of life as a migrant worker. Advocates estimate that 20,000–50,000 undocumented migrant workers are living in Alberta today. When asked, these workers report that they stay because there is nothing for them to return home to and they prefer holding on to a faint hope of gaining permanent residency in Canada. These men and women become migrant workers because they want to build a better life for their family. Programs like the TFWP create the “problem” of undocumented workers because they feed on the hopes and dreams of migrant workers and provide no avenue to fulfil them. Canada has become part of a global system of migration and we cannot simply wish away the responsibilities that come with that.

We both agree there should be more opportunities for TFWs to achieve permanent residency. Currently only a small fraction of TFWs gain permanence—the program is far from “an ideal gateway.” Greater access to permanent residency would ameliorate some of the problems with the TFWP. However, this solution raises an important question. If the labour market need for these workers is ongoing, then why not bring them in permanently in the first place through the regular immigration process? I suspect the answer is because employers want the flexibility that comes with a temporary migrant worker program.

Which brings us to the heart of the issue. The TFWP is designed to benefit employers, not Canadians and definitely not the migrant workers. We need to interrogate the rationale for the program. The core of Cross’s argument is that the TFWP is necessary because there will always be jobs Canadians do not want to take and employers need migrant workers as an option. There may be an element of truth to that claim, but we need to be careful not to let employers off the hook too easily. Many perceived labour shortages are relative. There are insufficient workers willing to do a job for the wages and working conditions being offered. Increase the wages and improve conditions so more workers are willing to do the job, and the shortage disappears.

This is how markets, including labour markets, are supposed to work—price is linked to supply and demand. Except that employers use migrant workers to sidestep the rules.

It is not that migrant workers are a “low-cost labour source.” The point is the TFWP keeps the labour market tipped in employers’ favour. It does so by creating a class of precarious workers with fewer rights than Canadians have. If we were to provide migrant workers with the same rights as Canadians (including permanent residency), they would quickly become less desirable for employers.

We cannot fix the TFWP by making slight adjustments to its rules, because the program and the fundamental principles upon which it is built are inherently exploitative. We can do better. We can pay workers in TFW-dependent industries more to make those jobs more desirable. We can ensure marginalized workers have employment opportunities. We can reform our immigration policies to ensure we have an inflow of new residents to meet our longer-term labour market needs. If we do those things, then there is no need for the TFWP.

 

Philip Cross responds to Jason Foster

Professor Foster misrepresents who benefits from the TFWP and how it has evolved since 2002. The program enriches both Canadian consumers and migrant workers as well as employers.

He claims the program suddenly changed in 2002 to allow a flood of low-skilled workers and has since been “directionless and adrift” with “contradictory” shifts in policy. The reality is completely different. Low-skill TFWs account for less than 1 per cent of Canada’s labour force of over 20 million people. Policies were “contradictory” only because labour market conditions themselves changed radically. That policies “vacillated between tightening and loosening” reflects an admirable responsiveness to local conditions instead of the ideological purity prized in academic circles.

The vast majority of temporary workers in Canada have been high-skill workers moving within a firm or covered by trade agreements, completely separate from the stream designed for low-skill workers (notably caregivers and agricultural workers). The TFWP was modified in 2002 to allow low-skill workers to enter Canada. Two major changes were made over the next decade, first in response to widespread labour shortages in western Canada and then when the oil boom ended and unemployment soared. The 2007 changes expedited applications for employers in BC and Alberta facing local shortages; two-thirds of the “explosion” of demand for TFWs came from these two provinces struggling with labour shortages limiting their growth. The program was modified again in 2013 with the goal of halving TFW use by capping the proportion of a company’s workforce that could be comprised of TFWs, slashing the duration of stays, refusing all applications in regions where unemployment exceeded 6 per cent and stepping up government inspections.

Labour market policy in this country must be tailored to regional dynamics, which are fundamentally different between and even within provinces. Therefore Canada’s labour market policies are mostly set by the provinces, with the federal government confined to a minor role for industries it regulates and international flows of labour.

Professor Foster wants to rethink the role of migrant workers in our labour market. There is precious little to ponder. The 84,000 low-skill TFWs in 2013 represented a trivial 0.4 per cent of the labour force; including all TFWs raises that to only 1.2 per cent.

The sensational claim that the program is “rife with abuse” is backed up by nothing but anecdotes. As we said at Statistics Canada, the plural of anecdote is not data. The Canadian Border Service Agency informs all workers entering the country of their rights and provides a phone number if they wish to complain about an employer (1 866 602 9448).

COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred in too many industries. Professor Foster presents no data documenting whether industries using more TFWs have higher infection rates than others. It is notable there has been no repeat of last spring’s outbreaks in the agricultural sector, suggesting that the industry used government aid programs to better protect and quarantine its workers. Regulations could be further improved without the extreme solution of abolishing the whole TFW program.

If TFWs have “paid a price” coming to Canada, the price has been low compared with the benefits they receive. The willingness of many agricultural workers to return year after year demonstrates that instances of abuse are rare. A recent analysis by the U of C’s Robert Falconer shows one-half of agricultural TFWs remain in the program three years after their first experience, and nearly one-third return for a decade. Many employers would be happy with such retention rates for their Canadian labour force. Rather than TFWs being victims, the Auditor General found that a bigger problem is TFWs remaining illegally after their temporary stay’s scheduled end. This hardly fits the attempt to portray them as victims trapped in their jobs by exploitative employers.

Rather than abolish the program we should make it easier for TFWs to become permanent residents. But let’s not be naïve that all migrants from abroad want to settle in Canada. For example, most migrant agricultural workers come from Central America (notably Mexico), and many are content to work for six months at the average monthly wage of $3,500 and then return home, avoiding our brutal winters to support their families with the considerable purchasing power $21,000 (CDN) has in their homeland.

Ordinary Canadians benefit from the TFWP as much as migrant workers. Without TFWs, the cost of caregiving and food would rise sharply; for example, the Conference Board estimates wages would need to rise 66 per cent to entice Canadians to replace migrant farm workers.

Professor Foster uses a misleading collage of anecdotes and analysis to call for first eliminating the program and then devising long-term solutions. A more practical solution is to continue to improve the rules and regulations that govern a program that provides considerable benefit to both Canadians and migrants from abroad.

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