A McMaster professor will launch a four-year study into the use of temporary foreign workers amid allegations of abuse of the controversial program.

Catherine Connelly, associated professor at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University and Canada Research Chair in Organizational Behaviour, has recently been awarded a federal grant to study the implications of Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP) on workers and employers.

Dr. Catherine Connelly

Catherine Connelly is an associated professor of human resources and management at McMaster University and a Canada Research Chair in Organizational Behaviour. (McMaster University)

The federal program allows companies in Canada to hire foreigners for job openings that can't be filled by a Canadian worker.

“The purpose of my study is not so much to evaluate the program,” she told CBC Hamilton. “But my focus is really on understanding these workers' experiences and how managers can improve their experiences while they are in Canada.”

The program has come under fire from all sides. Most recently, CBC's Go Public investigation team has published a series of stories on McDonald's Canada's use of the program, with some foreign workers calling it “slavery,” while some local workers speak out about feeling sidelined.

The allegations have prompted a federal investigation into the restaurant chain's use of TFWP. McDonald's Canada has also put the use of temporary foreign workers on hold pending the result of a third-party audit.

On Thursday, federal Employment Jason Kenney also announced an immediate moratorium on the fast-food industry's access to the program.

McDonald's Canada is not the only Canadian corporation stung by criticism over the use of TFWP. Connelly said she began taking an interest in the program after Go Public revealed that RBC replaced dozens of Canadian staff with temporary foreign workers.

“It just struck me as something that needs really careful study,” she said. “There's very little information that's being collected about who these workers are and what their experiences are.”

'Serious problems'

Connelly said she plans to begin the study by interviewing stakeholders on both sides of the equation — temporary foreign workers and their Canadian, permanent counterparts.

Connelly said she wants to find out how supportive the workers feel, if they feel their contributions are valued, what their stresses are and how they cope with them.

Based on her findings from the interviews, she will keep tracking these workers' experiences over time.

Although she hasn't begun the study, Connelly has already said she believes the program should be cancelled due to “serious problems.”

“In particular, it's framed as a cost-effective way for organizations to recruit employees. I would actually say that's unlikely to be the case,” she said.

For example, bureaucracy can add to the costs of accessing the program for both employers and workers, Connelly explained,

“Rather than just posting notices in the window or looking on Kijiji, people have to go through quite a bit of paperwork just to receive approval to use this program,” she said, adding that there will also be costs associated with managing the temporary foreign workers once they are hired.

Opportunity cost

In addition to the financial costs, the temporary nature of the TFWP could mean opportunity costs to the employers because of lost potentials.

Temporary foreign employees who start at an entry-level job could become exemplary employees in the future as they work their way up and become familiar with the company, Connelly said.

'If a company is relying on temporary foreign workers who come in for some period of time, and then they leave, there's an opportunity cost in terms of what they could have contributed,”

The findings of the study will be made available to the academic audience, as well as on a website for the general public, she said.

Citing confidentiality issues, Connelly did not elaborate on how she would select her interview subjects and which companies they would come from.

The grant comes from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, a federal research-funding agency.