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Conservatives need to take leadership role on temporary foreign workers

Conservatives need to take leadership role on temporary foreign workers

Conservatives need to take leadership role on temporary foreign workers

Conservatives need to take leadership role on temporary foreign workers

Published on 25 March 2015
Publications by Senator Jane Cordy

Spring is at our doorstep and with it comes milder weather and green growth. It is also the time of year when many Canadian businesses in the agricultural industry rely on access to temporary foreign workers to staff their operations.

While the important economic contribution of temporary foreign workers—which account for just under 2% of the Canadian workforce—is emphasized by most experts, including the Parliamentary Budget Officer, their presence in Canada continues to stir debate.

Of course, we know of corporations that have abused the temporary foreign worker program and used it as an opportunity for cynically laying off skilled Canadian employees. But beyond these scandalous cases, many businesses genuinely need foreign workers in order to survive. Such sectors include food processing and catering and the agriculture sector, which has the impossible task of filling labour jobs that Canadians simply will not take. We also must not forget the services provided by many foreign workers as caregivers that help thousands of Canadians suffering from great physical or psychological distress.

By continuously altering the norms and conditions underpinning the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, the federal government has ensured its fundamental distortion. As a result, the number of foreign workers in Canada has exploded, generating unemployment in some markets. This is contradictory to its purpose since the very reason for the program was to address shortages of Canadian workers in specific regions or sectors, not take jobs from Canadians.

Last year, faced with a mess of its own creation, the government had no other choice but to make changes to the system. Unfortunately, the changes brought forth have been driven by a need to hastily resolve a political crisis rather than a willingness to make effective and lasting reforms.

The government has no vision for the program. Take the simple case of the fee charged to employers for foreign workers permits, which has been increased from $275 to $1,000. This amount is almost certainly no deterrent to a large corporation but for a small farm, or especially a low-income individual who faces substantial health care costs for a caregiver, this fee can amount to an insurmountable barrier to the program.

The government does not propose any real incentives to attract more Canadian workers into certain occupations and does nothing to address the vulnerable situation of many migrant workers. Canadian workers will never be as attractive to certain less-than-scrupulous employers as temporary foreign workers, who cost little and are exploitable and afraid to speak up.

It is not often that stakeholders as diverse as the independent business sector, retailers, farmers, caregivers, colleges and universities, unions, and human right activists are united in their efforts on the same issue. Their strong opposition to changes in the system shows that the government has made a wrong turn.

As a representative of Nova Scotia where temporary foreign workers can have a significant impact on the local economy, I am convinced that we need to have a serious debate about this issue. Such a debate has to address:

  • How do we ensure that employers have access to temporary foreign workers without creating lasting distortions in the labour market?
  • How do we ensure the proposed measures are manageable for employers who genuinely need these workers?
  • How do we adequately protect temporary foreign workers, given their extreme vulnerability and dependence?

It is about time this Government gets its act together and shows leadership on this crucial issue.