The moratorium on temporary foreign workers is not “a good first step”, it’s wrong.

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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.

3 Replies to “The moratorium on temporary foreign workers is not “a good first step”, it’s wrong.”

  1. Hi there!
    I believe the government should take the program back to it’s roots and if small businesses cannot pay a fair wage to the people it wants to hire, there is no way they will find enough Canadians. That’s the reason the energy projects are able to “scoop” up people…because they pay closer to a living wage.
    I think the main reason small business cannot find the people it needs is because they cannot pay enough money to them.
    I’m afraid if that is the case, then the small business may not survive and that’s the way of the world…it’s competition and if you can’t compete, you lose.
    I do agree that the immigration policy in Canada needs an overhaul considering current events.
    There are several other areas that are included in this discussion, such as the level of skiplled worked produced in Canada, or maybe the apprenticeship programs or paid internships should be increased.
    But mainly I see the reason the foreign workers program has escalated recently is because some employers have found a way to get around paying more to low level employees…the expenses cited in your piece are a one time outlay. I’m sure McDonald’s head office helps out with paper work and so on.

    1. Employers must pay wages equal to or above industry standards to TFWs. It is not a one time cost. The main reason they are using TFWs is an inability to local workers followed closely by the fact that in most cases they are better, more reliable workers. Something employers are willing to pay for. The narrative you are buying into is one being pushed forward by labour union looking to organize the hospitality sector. It’s a compelling narrative except it is completely false on almost every level. We agree the few who abuse the system should be charged and not allowed to use the system again. If you are looking for a reason why the program has escalated, look to Canada as a desirable destination for foreign nationals, a high standard of living, employers competing with Employment Insurance as alternate income source and the resistance of the public to pay 12 dollars for a hamburger.

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