The Harper government has drastically narrowed the doorway for employers to bring foreign workers into the country legally to work as food-counter attendants, kitchen helpers, light-duty cleaners, cashiers and other service-industry jobs. Fast-food businesses in Alberta and Saskatchewan were alarmed: Prices would rise and restaurants would close, they warned. But the government probably cannot so easily stop the providers of doughnuts and hamburgers from serving their customers.
The government was previously widening that doorway from year to year so the numbers of temporary foreign workers rose to 336,000 recently from 100,000 in 2002. Employers were pleased. Many of the workers involved seemed pleased, though fear of deportation may stop their tongues. Complaints developed last year, however, that the program was being abused. In April 2013, information-technology employees at the Royal Bank of Canada were instructed to train the foreign temps from India who would take their places after they were laid off. A Chinese-owned mining company in British Columbia brought coal miners from China, claiming Canadian miners could not do the work. Restaurant workers in Saskatchewan and B.C. complained they had been laid off and replaced by lower-paid foreign temps.
Under new rules announced Friday by Employment Minister Jason Kenney, foreign temps cannot be hired for low-skill work in regions with an unemployment rate greater than six per cent. Employers cannot fill more than 10 per cent of their jobs with foreign temps, though they are given three years to scale down to that level. Employers will be inspected -- this has not been done in the past -- and will be asked to show what effort they made to hire Canadians and how they plan to hire more Canadians.
The minister reasoned that foreign temps should be used as a last resort to fill momentary gaps in the local labour pool. They should not be the enduring basis for a business.
The United States regulates immigration in much the same way Canada does but the green card allowing a non-citizen to work in the U.S. is extremely difficult to obtain. The result is the U.S. is home to something like eight million illegal immigrants with hundreds more entering every day across the porous Mexican border. Crackdowns are announced from time to time, but since whole industries such as construction and landscaping in California and Texas depend on employing illegal immigrants, the crackdowns are generally half-hearted. In both countries, there are jobs to be filled and foreign workers willing to fill them.
Canada should design its immigration policy and its temporary foreign worker program so as to welcome people who come here to work and encourage them to help build this country. Temporary foreign workers should not be left at the mercy of employers, subject to deportation if their boss is unreasonable. They should be given wide latitude to seek better opportunities if their pay, hours and working conditions are out of step with the local labour market.
With one hand, Canada tells employers they have to hire every available Canadian before they hire a foreign temp. With the other, Canada keeps people waiting years and years for permission to settle here and become citizens. Those would-be immigrants are asking to be Canadians, but the government won't let them and then says they can't work because they are not Canadians.
The temporary foreign worker program creates a shadowy world on the fringes of the labour market where workers are afraid to speak up for fear of deportation. This is not exactly slavery but it leaves the workers involved without the freedom that any other worker has to quit an unsatisfactory job. That freedom is what keeps employers honest and keeps a labour market efficient. Mr. Kenney and his temporary foreign worker program will serve Canada best if he takes more of the shackles off the workers and gives them a clear path to citizenship and full economic freedom.