5 questions about Canada's temporary foreign workers program

Canada's temporary foreign worker program has been in the news recently. Here are some answers to questions you may have
Canadian restaurant owners are using the temporary foreign worker program to find staff. (CBC)

1. What exactly is the Temporary Foreign Workers Program?

The Government of Canada website describes the program as one that “lets employers hire foreign workers to fill temporary labour and skill shortages.”

To qualify, employers must show they tried to hire Canadians for the same jobs but couldn’t.

The TFW program started in 1973 with the goal of bringing in highly-specialized workers from other countries -  like academics and engineers - to fill gaps here in Canada.

2.  Why am I hearing so much about Temporary Foreign Workers Program lately?

On April 6, CBC’s Go Public investigative unit broke the story of a Victoria, B.C. McDonald’s franchise accused of favouring foreign workers over Canadians. Employees complained that temporary foreign workers received more hours and more shifts, while resumes from Canadians went unanswered.

That story sparked a landslide of similar complaints. Google “CBC temporary foreign workers” and you’ll see what we mean. Or, if you’re short on time, we did it for you: 

3. If the TFW program is more than 40 years old, why are we hearing new complaints?

The new complaints appear to stem from changes during the past 12 years:  the TFW program opened up to so-called “low-skill workers” and the government made the TFW application and hiring process quicker

These changes saw the program triple in size over a decade, from 101,000 temporary foreign workers in 2002 to 338,000 in 2012.

Some argue the program became too big for the government to control, that businesses found loopholes to hire foreign workers as cheap labour even in areas with high unemployment and that the system was creating a group of “second-class citizens” in Canada who can’t upgrade their skills or work for other employers.

4. So what is the government doing about it?

Ottawa has made some moves to improve the system, including narrowing the language requirements last summer and introducing fines for companies that break the rules.

But attempts at improvement went into high gear after the recent media storm. Employment Minister Kenney halted new approvals for foreign hires in the food and services sector and launched a review of the TFW program.

As of May 21, there was no timeline on when that review would be complete. But some expected changes have already been leaked including a requirement to pay the workers more and tying the number of temporary foreign workers an employer is allowed to hire to the unemployment rate.

5. Why does this matter to “regular” Canadians like me?

This matters because it affects how and when Canadian employers hire people.

If a business can bring in foreign employees to work for them more cheaply, it’s possible Canadians are missing out on job opportunities.

At the same time, Canadian employers say the program offers much-needed relief from labour shortages - particularly in thriving markets like the Alberta oil sands.