Thursday, April 02, 2015

On the transformation of Canada's temporary foreign worker program

Today in Canada is a notable day in Canada's immigration history, for today is the day that changes in the Temporary Foreign Worker program are going to have a significant but as yet uncertain effect on the lives of people in the Canadian labour market. David P. Ball's article in British Columbian newsmagazine The Tyee, "Foreign Worker Exodus Expected as New Rules Kick in" outlines the situation.

Changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program will force the removal of tens of thousands of workers from the country starting today.
This will have an immediate impact not only on workers who have been in the country for more than four years, but also on industries that use foreign workers such as restaurants, construction and the agricultural sector.

The new rules will apply to an estimated 70,000 temporary workers, migrant advocates claim, but the exact number is not known and has not been revealed by Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Under the rules, workers who have been in the country longer than four years must leave. Once out of the country, they can't re-apply for another work permit to enter Canada for another four years, hence the "four-in, four-out" description.

There are more than 300,000 temporary foreign workers in Canada.

The "four-in-four-out" policy was announced in 2011 amid public debate over whether the program was replacing Canadians' jobs and exploiting non-Canadian labourers at the same time.

Last year, as a consequence of media reports that a significant number Canadian employers were bringing in temporary foreign workers in circumstances where there was no need--not only bringing in skilled labour, but bringing in unskilled labourers at a time of high domestic unemployment, the federal government clamped down significantly on the program. This extended analysis by the CBC's Tracy Johnson makes the point that, even now, basic information about the numbers of workers who will be affected remains vague. Betting on tens of thousands of people, perhaps--I speculate--as many as a hundred thousand--seems safe..

Here's what we don't know — how many are set to leave April 1. Temporary workers who have been working in Canada since April 1, 2011, will see their visas expire, unless they were given the one-year reprieve.

Migrante Canada says that based on the number of people asking for help in Alberta, 16,000 are vulnerable. But that doesn't mean they all have to leave April 1.

"Well it's a rolling number," says Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour. "Because it depends on when their employers got their approval and the workers got their visa."

In June, the federal government made changes to the temporary foreign worker program after numerous abuses were reported by CBC
The changes included a ban on low-wage temporary foreign workers in regions where the unemployment rate is higher than six per cent and ultimately a 10 per cent cap in areas where unemployment is lower. Low-wage temporary foreign workers are defined as workers who earn less than the median income of approximately $20 per hour, depending on your province.

The consequences for the workers themselves will be severe: Without any chance to return to Canada for four years, these workers and their dependents will face significant issues. As reported by Torontoist' Desmond Cole, this could well lead to many of the former temporary foreign workers overstaying their visas, perhaps giving Canada a significant problem with overstaying--illegal--migrants. At the same time, the impact on the Canadian labour market could be significant. Will Canadians take up the newly-available jobs in substantial numbers? Do the demographics of the Canadian labour force, with a diminishing number of young people able and willing to fill these "starter" jobs, support this? Will employers improve the working conditions they offer so as to be more competitive?

More will come later. I'm still thinking through the consequences of this. I would be interested to hear from our readers about what they think of all this. Is this a good strategy to increase levels of unemployment? Is this a fair strategy, for Canadians and for foreign workers alike? Will it work?

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