So who is to blame for the temporary foreign worker mess?

Employment Minister Jason Kenney says the opposition are hypocrites for lambasting a program they want in on for their constituents. But even die-hard Conservatives say this one needs to be fixed.

Jason Kenney says the opposition are hypocrites for lambasting a program they want in on

Employment Minister Jason Kenney defends the much maligned Temporary Foreign Workers Program in QP on Tuesday. But the government admits more changes are on the way. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

An email arrived this week from a self-described Conservative of 22 years. He wanted to talk about the increasingly maligned Temporary Foreign Worker Program that's been the hot, no make that the heated topic of debate in the Commons this week.

His main point: no conservative government should meddle in free markets, yet that's exactly what's happening with this program, which encourages employers to bring in non-Canadians to fill vacant jobs in this country.

"This is leading to all kinds of problems, which we are now seeing,'' my correspondent wrote. "Canadians losing their jobs so that TFWs can be hired, creating higher unemployment as more TFWs flood into Canada, keeping wages low in these industries, and reducing the job opportunities for summer students who need the jobs so they can afford to finish their education.

"I don't like the program at all."

It's that last line that neatly sums up the problem faced by Employment Minister Jason Kenney. Critics abound, even among members of the minister's own political base, and these critics insist temporary foreign workers are costing Canadians jobs.

Now, Kenney is one of this government's most capable ministers. In fact, he's often Stephen Harper's Mr. Fixit.

Handed the task of overhauling Canada`s immigration system, he did.

Directed to breathe life into the government's still-born Canada Job Grant Program, designed to address a shortage of skilled workers, he bargained, wheedled, compromised and cajoled reluctant provinces to sign on — using money the feds had previously earmarked to train the least-skilled Canadians.

It was no small feat that, rescuing the cornerstone of the Conservative 2013 budget.

But now Kenney faces the equally daunting task of explaining to Canadians — including Conservative supporters like my correspondent  — why the Temporary Foreign Worker Program is not an evil necessity, let alone a necessary evil.

Guilty parties

This task is going to take every bit of political skill Kenney has.

On Tuesday, New Democrats and Liberals lined up to pillory a program that, as first revealed by CBC News, is being abused by some employers, largely but not exclusively in the food services industry.

Opposition MPs ran through a list of guilty parties on Tuesday: banks, hotels, even strip clubs have applied to bring in workers under the program.

"The Temporary Foreign Worker Program has been open to abuse resulting in the firing of qualified Canadian workers, lower wages and the exploitation of foreign workers," said Jinny Sims, the NDP's employment critic.

Kenney has already banned restaurants from using the TFW program. He is also in the midst of another review to impose further regulations, though his department said he is not able to speak publicly about those plans because they have not been approved by cabinet.

But Kenney is under no such restriction when it comes to attacking the motives of his political opponents, calling NDP and Liberal MPs "hypocrites" who publicly lambaste the program while privately lobbying him on behalf of employers in their ridings who want to bring in, among others, computer game designers, fish plant workers and musicians.

"Do they not find it peculiar that they say one thing in this debate, but something else whenever it comes to an interest group that they favour."

In response to a Liberal question, Kenney waved a letter written by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau asking the Canadian Embassy in China to reconsider a rejected work permit application for a restaurant in his riding.

It was all too much for Liberal MP John McCallum.

"Why doesn't this minister look in the mirror and admit to Canadians that this mess is a Conservative mess. It's his mess and nobody else's mess," he yelled over hoots and catcalls from both sides of the House.

What to do?

So there you have it. It is Conservative mismanagement that is behind the abuse. Or it's NDP hypocrisy. And, just to even it all off, it's really the Liberals' fault because they brought in the temporary foreign worker program in the first place back in the 1970s.

No matter how you cut it, the TFW program has morphed into something it was never intended to be.

The original intent was to find high-skilled workers to fill jobs when no qualified Canadians could be found. Now it is open to fast-food restaurants that can't find local people to do the jobs.

One of the biggest, and most accepted, users of temporary foreign workers is the agricultural sector, which brings in thousands of workers at harvest times. (Canadian Press)

Kenney argued on Tuesday that the vast majority of temporary foreign workers are not in what the government calls the ''low-skilled stream,'' but are executives, academic researchers and other high-skilled temporary foreign workers who come for a short period of time to work on specific projects.

Some of these are reciprocal programs that allow Canadians the same mobility rights to work in other countries.

But that doesn't address the legitimate concerns that the program is being abused, and that some employers find it more convenient to bring in foreign workers instead of hiring Canadians or permanent residents — an aspect of the TFW program that took off on the Conservative watch.

At least one study, by the non-partisan C.D. Howe Institute, pegged the number of temporary foreign workers in Canada at nearly 340,000 — three times the number from just a decade ago.

At the same time, jobless rates among Canadians remain stubbornly high, especially among young people.

It doesn't take much effort to connect those dots.

More difficult is addressing the underlying conditions that discourage Canadians from taking available, low-skilled jobs.

Conservative MP James Rajotte says a number of small business owners in his Edmonton-area riding can't survive without temporary foreign workers. He says these small business voices are being drowned out by the chorus of criticism.

So what can Kenney do?

Part of the government's response will almost certainly be to force employers to do more to prove that they have done everything possible to fill jobs with Canadians or permanent residents.

Another is to try to work with the provinces to raise the minimum wage to make the job of serving coffee, answering phones or flipping burgers if not more rewarding, at least more lucrative.

Still another would be to put real emphasis on the "temporary" by setting strict time limits on how long TFWs could stay.

It's a complicated problem that defies easy fixes, even for the Harper government's Mr. Fixit.


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998. Follow him on Twitter: @chrishallcbc


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?