Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Temporary ain't what it used to be

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Rule No. 1 of Canada's immigration policy is: You can't come here because you might take a job from a Canadian. This is followed by a dense, scarcely penetrable jungle of rules by which you might come here and work if you are hired as a nanny or a tomato harvester or if you are a refugee from political oppression or if your close relatives who live here will sponsor you or a wide range of other special cases. Each of these has an administrative structure to keep most of the people out.

The final rule is that all the rules are mutable if the minister is in political hot water. In the nature of immigration, the minister is in hot water most of the time because heart-rending tales surface every day where faithful application of the rules produces inhumane results. Consequently, the rules are in constant flux, new rules are written in response to last week's scandal and only full-time professional immigration consultants can tell employers and prospective migrants what is permitted on any given day.

The United States and the European Union operate in much the same way, except that the enormous numbers of illegal migrants flooding in from Mexico and North Africa make the elaborate structure of rules nearly pointless in those countries. Not so many people are trying to sneak into Canada, except as a back door into the U.S. American and European employers remedy skill shortages by hiring illegal immigrants. With a smaller pool of illegals, Canadian employers are more severely constrained.

In the latest fine-tuning of Canada's migration micro-management, the government repealed a year-old rule that employers could pay temporary foreign workers 15 per cent less than the average wage paid to Canadians for the same work. Information-technology workers at a bank head office in Toronto had been astonished to learn they were being laid off and their work given to an outside firm that would do it cheaper by hiring people from India. Their last duty before leaving would be to train the temporary foreign workers. The government cut its political losses in that scandal by eliminating the 15 per cent discount rule.

That will not be the end of the story. The temporary foreign worker rule has been stretched over the years so that it is no longer just a way to bring some grape-pickers in for a few weeks of harvesting. A migrant can stay in a Canadian job four years and still be considered a temporary foreign worker. Four years is a long time for a Canadian to stay in many private-sector jobs. Calling these temporary jobs, therefore, is an odd use of language.

The difference for people in the so-called temporary foreign worker program is that they are forbidden the hope every other Canadian worker has of working up to a better job or going down the street to take better work from another employer. It is a way of exempting employers from competitive pressure to treat their workers well. It was not designed for that purpose, but as with most immigration rules, the unintended consequences are the ones that attract attention.

Canadian restaurant chains want to advertise uniform prices across the country. This is important for publicity campaigns. But Alberta fast-food franchises cannot keep counter-servers at the wages that can be paid under the national price structure, and so they have turned to the temporary foreign worker program. The problem could be solved by regional variation in prices at the fast-food franchises or by launching different brands in regions of labour shortage. The solution at the moment is to pretend that these are temporary scarcities filled by temporary workers, but that fiction will not stand up to close scrutiny and will probably have to be abandoned.

In some industries, such as information technology, Canadian workers are competing with workers in other countries. If the workers are not brought to Canada, the information can be sent to Mumbai. Canadian immigration policy is not likely to become logical and consistent, but it should respond to market realities.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Gerald Flood, Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 13, 2013 A8

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