Last week, the Free Press published an article (Tories ponder tougher measures concerning temporary foreign workers) detailing discussions the federal government has had on changes to Canada's temporary foreign worker program. Many of issues reportedly discussed were about increasing application fees and banning the hiring of foreign workers in areas of high unemployment. While these are important issues to consider, they represent mere tinkering with the system. What Canada needs now is leadership. The questions that need to be answered are: how will government ensure Canadians are hired before temporary foreign workers; how will government ensure employers demonstrate a true need for foreign workers before hiring from abroad, and will the temporary foreign worker program provide a pathway to Canadian citizenship for all foreign workers?
First and foremost, the government must ensure that unemployed are first in line for jobs. The point of the temporary foreign worker program is to assist businesses in finding employees when no Canadians or permanent residents are willing and able to do the job. In order to maintain this Canada-first policy, the government must do more to match unemployed Canadians with Canadian employers.
While businesses that hire temporary foreign workers should have to prove no Canadians are willing and able to do the job, our federal and provincial governments can do more to help these employers. Our governments know who is unemployed. After all, names and mailing addresses of these individuals are necessary to provide them with retraining and benefits. Since our governments already have these data, creating a system to allow these unemployed Canadians to be matched with Canadian employers should not be difficult.
But isn't creating a government database difficult? Probably not. The Canadian government has already announced that an express entry system that would allow foreigners, some of whom who have never worked or studied in Canada, to apply for permanent residency will be in place in 2015. This system allows foreigners to essentially have their resumés available to Canadian employers for job-matching purposes. If foreigners are provided with this opportunity, surely Canadians should be given this same opportunity as well.
If businesses, after thoroughly advertising and reviewing resumés of available Canadians, cannot find a person willing and able to work for them, these businesses should be able to hire foreign workers. If there is truly a shortage, foreign workers should be approved quickly. In the U.S., certain foreign workers can be processed in under three weeks with the payment of additional fees.
The suggestion that there be a blanket ban on foreign workers in areas of high unemployment is wrong-headed. What needs to be done are individualized assessments of what employers need based on hard data. If a specialized professional is needed in an area of high unemployment, businesses should be able to hire a temporary foreign worker if no qualified and able Canadian is available.
Finally, it is essential that the government clarify whether the temporary foreign worker is a short-term employment fix or a form of probationary permanent residence.
Over the last few years, federal and provincial immigration programs have been designed so most economic immigrants to Canada must have previous work experience in Canada to qualify. Currently, our temporary foreign worker program acts both as a probationary permanent-resident program as well as one to fill temporary job needs.
However, because of the patchwork immigration system set up by different provinces, some foreign workers can apply for permanent residency in certain provinces while others cannot. Manitoba stands alone as one of the only provinces that allows any temporary foreign worker to apply for Canadian permanent residency. While there are still criteria temporary foreign workers must meet before being approved for permanent residency, Manitoba does not restrict the type of temporary foreign worker who can immigrate. If a temporary foreign worker is occupying a job for which no Canadians are willing and able to fill, that temporary foreign worker should be able to apply for permanent residency. Canada and the other provinces should adapt the Manitoba model.
If we do away with the temporary foreign worker program in its entirety, Canada will go back to a system where immigrants come to Canada unemployed. It is much better for an individual to come to Canada as a temporary foreign worker, assess whether living in Canada is for them and then apply for permanent residency. The probationary permanent-resident program that has been established is much better at ensuring the success of a new immigrant than one in which the immigrant arrives here unemployed and essentially hoping to find a job.
Reis Pagtakhan is an immigration lawyer with Aikins Law in Winnipeg.