Robyn Benson, PSAC

More on cheap labour games


Perhaps unsurprisingly, events have moved swiftly since I first posted on the Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP) a few weeks ago.

First, a study was released last week from the University of Calgary, which called for a significant scaling back of the program (downloadable here). There is no general labour shortage, declared researcher Kevin McQuillan, but a “labour mismatch,” one which has seen a flood of temporary foreign workers arriving in parts of Canada with high local unemployment.

Last year alone, 213,516 of these workers were admitted to Canada. In New Brunswick, unemployment since 2002 has oscillated between 30,000 and 40,000 workers. During that same period, McQuillan notes, the number of temporary foreign workers brought to the province has increased from 500 to 3000.

In fact the disconnect (or “labour mismatch”) that researcher Kevin McQillan describes has been known to the government for some time. Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development Diane Finley was alerted last year, but little concrete action seems to have been taken to resolve the issue.

But that was then, and this is now. A rising public outcry has finally forced the government to trim substantially a program that has become a cheap foreign labour pool for Canadian employers, open to scams and abuses by offshore labour brokers.

On April 29, Minister Finley and Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, announced changes to the TFWP that will make the hiring of workers under the program more difficult to use, to the benefit of Canadian workers.

Employers are now no longer permitted to pay temporary foreign workers up to 15% less than the prevailing wage in a region. The issuing of Labour Market Opinions (LMOs)—the process by which temporary foreign workers are admitted—will be considerably tightened up through measures in the current omnibus Bill C-60. They will give HRSDC and CIC considerable control over LMOs, including the ability to refuse, suspend or revoke them based upon Ministerial instructions (although those instructions, unfortunately, are not subject to any kind of review or public discussion).

LMO applications will from now on require answers to further questions about outsourcing, and whether Canadian workers are being displaced. Employers dependent upon temporary foreign workers will have to provide a plan to transition to a Canadian workforce.

As soon as the media tore the lid off TFWP abuses, it became impossible for the government to tough it out. There was something here, after all, for almost everybody to dislike. Those who believe that workers—Canadians or exploited foreign ones—do not benefit from these cheap labour schemes were joined by the anti-immigration crowd who form part of Harper’s base. Something had to give, and it did.

So what now? Canadian workers will no longer be so easily passed over by employers. Unemployed workers will have better chances of becoming re-employed. That’s all to the good. But reforming the TFWP is not a solution to the problem of unemployment and underemployment all by itself. Employer attitudes have to change.

The former Governor of the Bank of Canada, Mark Carney, was forthright on the subject:

“There are some signs of skills mismatches (but) we do believe employers play an important role to ensure life-long skills development is a part of the nature of business in Canada….”

He added that the program should concentrate on shortages of high-skilled workers, and not on service jobs and other lower-wage categories that critics say are now being filled by foreign imports. The solution to that, said Carney, is for employers to pay higher wages and improve productivity.

“One doesn’t want an over-reliance on temporary foreign workers for lower-skilled jobs, which prevent the wage adjustment mechanism for…making sure Canadians are paid higher wages, but also that the firms improve their productivity.”

Labour, it has to be said, has been a little slow to rise to the cheap labour challenge, although that is changing. The labour movement in Canada, in fact, has long championed raising the minimum wage, and with some success. But we—and by that I mean organized labour, including our own union—need to do much more to take on the cheap labour strategies of employers, of which the abuse of the TFWP is but a symptom. Take the low-paid, dead-end jobs that mark the service industries, for example. While fast food workers in large American cities have engaged in sporadic strike action with the strong support of the labour movement, we have barely lifted our collective voice.

Yet dealing firmly with this cheap labour syndrome is crucial, particularly when we look at diminishing opportunities for Canadian youth these days. For whatever reason, employers appear more and more reluctant to invest in on-the-job training for those just entering the workforce—in fact McQuillan reports “disturbing evidence” that such training is in steep decline. That shuts off untold opportunities for these young workers.

I think we can all agree that giving our youth a shot at decent employment should be everyone’s priority. Perhaps the new restrictions on the TFWP will help to remove the temptation to choose cheaper alternatives. Perhaps not. It’s something that bears watching—if not for our own sake, then for that of our children.

[Photo credit: Vancouver Sun, April 18 via Olivia Chow]

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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on May 16, 2013 8:30 AM.

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