Manitoba·Opinion

Are temporary worker numbers declining as unemployment rises?

With the recent announcement by Statistics Canada that the unemployment rate increased to 7.1 per cent in November, has the government revoked permits for temporary foreign workers in areas of high unemployment?

Law allows federal government to revoke work permits where jobless rate is high

A New Brunswick tailor works with temporary foreign workers at his company last year. Winnipeg lawyer Reis Pagtakhan wants to know whether workers' permits have been revoked as unemployment rates have gone up. (CBC)

In 2014, the Canadian government gave itself the power to take work permits away from temporary foreign workers whose employment would have a significant negative effect on the Canadian labour market. With the recent announcement by Statistics Canada that the unemployment rate increased to 7.1 per cent in November, has the government revoked permits for temporary foreign workers in areas of high unemployment and, if not, why?

Last year, more than 95,000 work permits were issued nationwide. Of this number, over 20 per cent were issued to foreign nationals destined for Alberta — one of the provinces hardest hit by job losses.

The federal government's ability to take away work permits to protect the Canadian labour market is not designed to punish foreign workers. Rather, its purpose is to ensure Canadians and Canadian permanent residents have the first opportunity at jobs in our country.

When these rules were put into place, the government told Canadians that information on the revocation of work permits would be put on the government website. In the almost two years that the rules have been in place, the website indicates this power has never been used.‎

So why has the government not revoked work permits of temporary foreign workers to protect the Canadian labour market? Now, it may simply be that the temporary foreign workers who were working in areas where there is now high unemployment have already gone home. Work permits are typically issued for one to three years and it is entirely possible that the work permits of some of these temporary foreign workers have expired and were not renewed.

It may also be the case that these temporary foreign workers have already been laid off and gone home. Many of these work permits restrict temporary foreign workers to work for a specific employer at a specific location. For a temporary foreign worker, the expiry date of a work permit is meaningless if there is no job to go to.

In these cases, there is no need to revoke work permits as the system is working as intended.‎ However, given that the government has not revoked any work permits since these rules were introduced, the big question Canadians have is whether any investigations have been initiated and with what the results.

Workers need prep time

These are also important questions for temporary foreign workers. For these individuals, moving back home will require some time to organize their affairs. Selling property, terminating leases and making moving arrangements must all be considered. ‎No one is suggesting that a temporary foreign worker not have a reasonable amount of time to arrange their affairs after a work permit is revoked.

For potential temporary foreign workers waiting abroad for work permits, it would be best to stop the process now if they are destined to occupations and areas where there is high unemployment in Canada. ‎Many temporary foreign workers have jobs abroad. If there is no future in Canada for them, we should tell them before they close off their careers elsewhere.

Now, to be clear, this is not a call to eliminate the temporary foreign worker program. On the contrary, this is a call to better ensure that the program works as intended.

Just because Canadians may be unemployed in one area of the country does not mean that temporary foreign workers may not be needed in other areas of the country. For instance, unemployed Canadian petroleum engineers in Fort McMurray, Alta., would not normally be able to fill a vacant job for family physicians in southwestern Manitoba.

The temporary foreign worker program has a role to play in filling gaps in the workforce when no Canadians or Canadian permanent residents are willing and able to fill these jobs. However, the guiding principle of this program is that Canadians and Canadian permanent residents get a first crack at these jobs. If this principle is maintained, everyone wins — Canadians, Canadian permanent residents and, yes, temporary foreign workers. 

Reis Pagtakhan is an immigration lawyer at Aikins Law.

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