The Current

Expanding temporary foreign worker program just means 'more exploitable workers': advocate

The federal government is expanding Canada's temporary foreign workers program, but critics say conditions for low-wage workers need to improve.

Federal government to allow more workers from abroad, to ease labour shortage

Silhouette of a person picking a plant from the ground.
The federal government is expanding Canada's temporary foreign workers program, but critics say conditions for low-wage workers need to improve. (CBC)

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The federal government is tackling labour shortages by allowing some companies to bring more temporary foreign workers to Canada — but one advocate says those workers need better protections.

"The question is: why are these people being brought in on closed work permits, tied to the employer, rather than being given the same right as any other immigrant?" said Syed Hussan, executive director of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.

"The answer to that is ... there is no shortage of workers. There's a shortage of more exploitable workers," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

About 100,000 temporary foreign workers come to Canada each year, under a scheme that allows employers to hire them if no Canadian or permanent resident is available. The system came under scrutiny in the pandemic, with Canada's Auditor General Karen Hogan reporting in December that the federal government did not do enough to ensure those workers were being protected.

WATCH | AG cites 'systemic problem' with inspections in TFW program

AG says there is a 'systemic problem' with inspections in the temporary foreign worker program

1 year ago
Duration 1:11
Auditor General Karen Hogan says the lack of pandemic inspections in the temporary foreign worker program indicates a "systemic problem throughout the entire regime."

In changes announced Monday, sectors experiencing labour shortages — including tourism, food production and health care — will be allowed to hire more employees from abroad, and in some cases those employees can stay longer.

But Hussan argued that the workers hold a precarious position, where their accommodation, livelihood and even permission to stay in Canada is tied to their employer. 

"Tying workers to employers is actually throwing open the doors of exploitation," he said. 

"The immigration system must adjust to give them permanent resident status, rather than keeping them as second class, and even third-class workers and citizens."

Carla Qualtrough, federal minister of employment, workforce development and disability inclusion, said the federal government is working to ensure protections for temporary foreign workers. 

Employers must meet standards and undergo inspections around accommodation and working conditions, and complaints can be made via a tipline, she said.

"I would never say there isn't more to do, but there are options for workers to avail themselves of their rights, and we are working really hard to make sure that workers know what those rights are," she said.

Carla Qualtrough, federal minister of employment, workforce development and disability inclusion, said the federal government is working to ensure protection for temporary foreign workers. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

But expanding the temporary foreign worker program is necessary because Canada's "economic recovery is outpacing the ability for some employers to find workers," she said.

Statistics Canada recorded 915,500 unfilled positions in the fourth quarter of 2021, up by 63 per cent compared to 2020. 

"Canadians are filling jobs, but there's still more jobs than we have Canadians to fill," she told Galloway.

"What we're trying to do with this roadmap is adjust and improve the program now to meet labour market needs, while … continuing our ongoing work to strengthen worker protections."

'Canadians don't want to do these jobs'

The ability to hire more temporary foreign workers was welcomed by Marie-France MacKinnon, vice-president of public affairs and communications at the Canadian Meat Council, a national trade association for meat packers and processors.

"This announcement is a great Band-Aid to help us, you know, relieve a bit of our workforce who frankly, is quite tired of working so hard after this pandemic," she said.

"But there's a longer-term solution that we need to address: the systemic labour shortage."

MacKinnon said her industry is "taking a deep dive" into the question of why Canadians don't want to fill their empty jobs, looking at issues like "our culture, skills development, automation and underrepresented groups."

When asked about offering higher wages, she pointed out that their workers are unionized and wages are approved by the union, United Food and Commercial Workers Canada.

"What we do know is that we're in the same position as several other sectors," she said.

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Given that the job shortage isn't going away anytime soon, BDC's chief economist Pierre Cléroux says it's time for employers to get creative.

Qualtrough said that her department has "heard, quite frankly, from employers that Canadians don't want to do these jobs in a lot of cases." 

"These are hard jobs. I think we need to do better on improving the working conditions," she said.

She said the federal government is "working on more pathways to permanent residency and immigration options," so that workers who want to stay in Canada will have options to do so. 

"I think the reality is, you know, Canada was built on immigration and we're always going to have immigration as a supply of labour," she said.

Hussan argued that without permanent resident status, workers will be exploited. 

He wants all temporary foreign workers to be given permanent residency, to fix what he called "a system of temporariness."

"What we have is a revolving door system where people are coming into the country and they're becoming either undocumented or they're being kicked out," he said. 

"We have to fix this. Otherwise, you're going to have a continuous pool of exploitable people who are being brought in, chewed like gum and spit out when the country's done with them."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Arianne Robinson and Kate Cornick.

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