An ugly underpinning of the Canadian psyche is exposed as the result of the CBC’s story about a woman losing her job in Saskatchewan. Volumes of opinions, letters to editors, commentaries, status updates and tweets spewed forth, slamming the government for blindly allowing, or even encouraging, greedy employers to give all our jobs away to foreigners.
It’s been troubling to watch this explosion of dialogue over Canada’s Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP). Since the exposure of a handful of alleged abuses in the west, rhetoric from union bosses and a fundamental misunderstanding of the program, and the problems it is designed to address, has played into some of the worst of our collective national attitudes.
Yes, there are situations where rules get broken and employers may abuse the program. Canadians should always have the first crack at jobs and any abuse must be dealt with severely but slamming the door indefinitely on an entire sector will have dire consequences for many small business owners, most of whom have done absolutely nothing wrong.
The Minister placing a moratorium on the food services sector is unfair and potentially devastating to hundreds of small enterprises. Had Minister Kenney shut down Employment Insurance for an entire sector because of the rumored abuse of a few, imagine the cataclysm. Arguably there is more evidence to suggest that such a move would be a reasonable course of action, but because in this instance the targets are small businesses owners, too bad, so sad.
The TFWP ballooned over the past several years because employers are finding it increasingly difficult to hire workers with either appropriate skills or a willingness to take on specialized shift work. Simply put, many Canadians either can’t do or don’t want those jobs. The TFWP isn’t the real problem. It’s a symptom of a deeper issue: the Canadian labour market is not meeting the needs of small businesses desperate for workers.
Last weekend in Cape Breton three small business owners told me they’ve literally been driven to find foreign workers because they have run out of options. Why? Even in Cape Breton, an area with an unemployment rate of 15.6%, businesses can’t find people willing to work some jobs. If they do manage to find a Canadian worker, often they’ll quit after being trained, are unproductive (or worse), or simply won’t show up.
Businesses in Goose Bay, Labrador are struggling to find employees for entry-level jobs because the Muskrat Falls project is scooping up both skilled and unskilled workers. Under this new moratorium small businesses like family owned restaurants that depend on the TFWP are at risk of shutting their doors because they can’t find staff. It’s a story being repeated everywhere in Atlantic Canada.
The myth of “cheap” labour
Big unions have been torquing this story to their advantage. The labour movement is being frustrated in their efforts to organize the hospitality sector. This manufactured outrage over the TFWP has provided them with the opportunity to sell this as a program that drives down wages and keeps young Canadians out of work.
There are many reasons to criticize this program, saying it provides cheap labour is not among them, nor does it keep young Canadians from working.
Using the TFWP is bureaucratic and expensive. Employers must first prove they can’t find a Canadian to do the job. They must also pay the industry average wage and often the TFW is paid more than a Canadian worker (something which CFIB views as unfair), they must not pay the TFW less than they pay their other workers nor is it possible to pay less than the minimum wage. The employer must pay return airfare for the worker to their home country, a $275 non-refundable application fee to government and, often, fees to a recruiting agency to help find the foreign worker which can range from $5,000 to $10,000. The entire process requires about a 2 inch thick binder of evidence and can take 5 months just to get approvals.
Believe it, if there was an alternative, employers would gladly use it. The hospitality industry, currently being punished with this moratorium, already hires Canadians 98% of the time, this firestorm of outrage is over 2% of workers.
Unfortunately, most of the employees perceived to be TFWs are actually new Canadian citizens or permanent residents. As a result of the skewing of this narrative, landed immigrants, permanent residents and others “from away” are being unfairly characterized and mistreated by people who see their presence as an economic threat.
The TFWP is not perfect but this does not mean the vast majority, those playing by the rules, should be punished so severely for the misbehavior of a few. What is even more worrisome is many new Canadians are being made to feel unwelcome and unsafe because of an organized campaign of half-truths.
To the federal government, do not shut down this program, fix it…and soon.
CFIB has many recommendation including using this program as a point of entry for permanent residency and rethinking the bias in the immigration system against people coming to Canada to fill entry level jobs. Undermining the efforts of small businesses and creating friction between Canadians and new or potential citizens is not helping.
For the record, CBC’s program Power and Politics straw poll on Monday, April 28th showed 98% of its viewers participating in its poll believed Temporary Foreign Workers were taking jobs from Canadians…all 2% of them. The spin cycle is in overdrive.