Time to rethink guest worker program
Aug 05, 2009 04:30 AM
When Canada decided to allow employers facing acute labour shortages to hire temporary foreign workers, seven years ago, no one foresaw where it would lead.
Few imagined that a small experimental program could shake the underpinnings of the immigration system, distort the job market and raise human rights concerns.
Initially, the “low-skill pilot project” was tightly controlled. Employers had to prove they'd made a genuine effort to recruit Canadians. Ottawa had to agree that bringing in migrant labour would benefit the national economy. And foreign workers had to leave after 12 months.
For the few first years, the program produced a trickle of temporary residents.
That trickle has now swollen into a flood. In 2008, close to 200,000 temporary foreign workers arrived in Canada to drive trucks, serve fast food, clean buildings, even do government jobs. Today, more than half of those entering the country take this backdoor route.
Employers use the program as a source of cheap labour. The government promotes it as an efficient way to fill job vacancies. Immigration consultants capitalize on it, charging applicants hefty fees and promising them high wages, good working conditions, decent housing and employer-paid trips back to their home country.
How did a small detour around Canada's normal immigrant intake system expand into a high-speed thoroughfare for people who wouldn't otherwise qualify for admission?
And how will young Canadians, laid-off older workers and job seekers without post-secondary education get an economic foothold with so many entry-level positions filled?
The rapid expansion of the program began in 2006, when the newly elected government of Stephen Harper, reacting to pressure from the oil patch, “streamlined” the rules.
It introduced a fast-track approval process for employers seeking to bring in migrant labour and reduced the requirement for advertising job openings in Canada from six weeks to seven days.
The following year, the Conservatives announced that temporary foreign workers would be able to stay for two years without extending their visas.
And last year, Ottawa added a new feature called the Canadian Experience Class, which allowed temporary workers to apply for permanent residence without leaving the country. (What the government failed to make clear is that most low-skilled foreigners had little hope of meeting Canada's admission criteria. That meant they would either have to leave or attempt to stay illegally.)
Since the Tories took power, the number of temporary foreign workers accepted into the country has risen from 122,723 a year to 192,519 a year a 67 per cent increase.
There is strong, albeit anecdotal, evidence that employers are replacing Canadian workers with lower-coast temporary foreign workers or recruiting abroad in the first place.
At the same time, there are persistent reports that recruits from poor countries are being exploited. Their tenure in Canada is dependent on their employer. They are not fully protected by the Charter of Rights. And many are willing to put up with substandard working conditions to support their families back home.
What human rights activists fear is that Canada is heading down the same path as many European countries whose “guest worker” programs have resulted in a large pool of illegal immigrants, foreign workers incapable of becoming permanent residents or citizens who go underground and live on the margins of society.
Surely it is time to pause and weigh the costs and benefits.
But there appears to be no inclination to do that in Ottawa. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is proud of the way his government is aligning the immigration system with the labour market.
Until Canadians who aren't proud to see their government creating an underclass of low-wage workers speak out, the problem will grow.
Carol Goar's column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.