The TFW backtrack

Faced with an ugly trifecta of trouble with his temporary foreign worker program — anecdotal evidence and national perception followed by damning statistical evidence — Jason Kenney cut off Canada’s fast food industry.

Faced with an ugly trifecta of trouble with his temporary foreign worker program — anecdotal evidence and national perception followed by damning statistical evidence — Jason Kenney cut off Canada’s fast food industry.

He could defend no more. He had to act, so he announced that the food services industry would be suspended from the program and that any pending applications are in limbo.

In reality, the minister was following the industry, with McDonald’s and Tim Hortons taking their own disciplinary action and doing their own audits, leaving Ottawa trailing and defending the indefensible. That might have been a bit much for even the legendarily indefatigable minister. He had tried to act tough but he had no stick.

“Abuse of the temporary foreign worker program will not be tolerated,’’ he said.

Then, finally, the late-in-the game stick: “Employers who are found to have lied about their efforts to hire Canadians could face potential criminal prosecution with sanctions that include fines and jail time.’’

He was reacting to series of revelations about small business in this country, those entrepreneurs the Conservatives have championed, who were uprooting Canadian workers and finding room for temporary foreign workers who would raise no problems with hours, holidays or conditions.

On Thursday, into the thick soup of problems with the program, came a study from the non-partisan C.D. Howe Institute that went beyond the anecdotes and perception and concluded that the temporary worker program increased unemployment in two Conservative strongholds: Alberta and British Columbia.

Author Dominique M. Gross of Simon Fraser University studied the period between 2007 and 2010, when the Conservative government eased the requirements and expedited the process of hiring temporary workers in the two provinces because of a reported labour shortage in Western Canada.

She found there was little real evidence of shortages in many of the low-skilled occupations that were being fast-tracked, and the flood of foreign workers in the two provinces added a cumulative 3.9 percentage points to the unemployment rates in the West.

The temporary foreign worker program has been around in different guises for four decades, initially a program for skilled workers, seasonal agricultural workers and live-in caregivers.

In 2002, the program was extended to include low-skill jobs, the burger flipping and coffee slinging jobs that often pop up anecdotally about the problems with the program.

But between 2002 and 2013, Ottawa eased the hiring conditions of temporary foreign workers several times, the study says, and during that period the number of foreign workers in this country ballooned from 101,000 to 338,000.

In 2007, the expedited program allowed employers in Alberta and B.C., where the perceived labour shortages were most acute, to receive an opinion in five days on whether they could hire from another country, instead of the existing five months.

By the following year, those two provinces had more than twice as many temporary foreign workers in their provinces than the rest of Canada combined.

All of this appears to have opened the floodgates to temporary workers, blocking the entry into the workforce of some Canadians — a statistical confirmation of a widely held perception.

Even with changes announced last year by the Conservatives, the C.D. Howe study says there is still not proper, up-to-date labour market data available and the price of the permit for an employer wishing to import a foreign worker, a paltry $275 (in the U.S. it can be as high as $2,325), offers no incentive to find a Canadian worker to fill the opening.

That is infinitely cheaper than paying to relocate a qualified Canadian from another province. There is also no fee increase for employers based on how many temporary workers are hired and the fee is the same for a family-run business and large corporations.

Gross argues that placing a cap on the number of temporary foreign workers allowed into this country in any given year would help ease the problem for Canadian workers.

Because employers are allowed to continuously hire temporary workers over a number of years — instead of filling an emergency shortfall in available workers — the program can actually artificially reshape the labour market, she argues.

That, too, jibes with the perception.

Last week, I heard from boilermakers in Edmonton, bank employees in Toronto, greenhouse workers in the Niagara region, pipefitters in Alberta, a trucker from Brampton, a red seal plumber in Halifax and the owner of a roofing company in Ontario, among others.

All had a variation on the same argument — they were either being denied jobs in their region or they believed they were being denied the right to migrate to jobs they wanted. Owners of companies believe they are being undercut by competitors who use temporary foreign workers.

These are merely perceptions. Certainly not every anecdotal story can be verified and not everyone who says they are being denied a job would actually take one if it opened up.

Kenney was hearing the same. A program that clearly had merit on paper was failing in reality.

There is a body of evidence showing a program that mushroomed without proper safeguards, that removed the incentive for employers to hire Canadians, that relied on outdated or inaccurate data, that was speeded up without a proper rationale, was again in trouble.

For the government, it is back to the drawing board.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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