Temporary foreign workers program reforms: Winners and losers

WATCH:  Mike Le Couteur looks at whether the  reforms will fix the problems with the controversial Temporary Foreign Workers program

TORONTO – Changes to the temporary foreign workers announced Friday aim to reduce the number of foreign workers so they’re used only as a “last, limited resort” and ensure “Canadians always come first.”

So says Employment Minister Jason Kenney. The program has eclipsed Canada’s immigration numbers as it rose to 338,000 temporary foreign workers annually across Canada from only 100,000 in 2002.

Data Global News published last year shows that thousands of companies—from dog spas to oil companies, universities and government departments—have hired temporary foreign help, even in provinces struggling with joblessness and sectors with no obvious lack of domestic candidates.

The program made headlines in April 2013 when the Royal Bank of Canada allegedly planned to replace internal RBC employees with outsourced temporary foreign workers and came under further fire a year later when a B.C. McDonald’s franchise’s alleged abuses of the program became public.

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Watch: Why Jason Kenney thinks the reforms will improve the temporary foreign workers program

But many were surprised that none of the reforms would make it easier for “temporary” workers to become permanent citizens, and migrant workers’ rights groups don’t think the new rules will prevent abuse of employees laws or adequately police employers.

Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives senior economist Armine Yalnizyan said her main takeaway from Friday’s almost two-hour press conference was that it was a “flip-flop” by the government.

“They’re the ones that extended the permits to four years; they’re the ones cutting labour market information, and on both counts…they’re reversing course,” she said.

“Everything that they’ve done is moving in the right direction in the sense that it’s trying to prevent this program from being abused. [Kenney] has sent a very strong warning shot across the prow of big abusers. But the system is big, and it’s very porous, like a sieve. And it’s not clear that the rules that were introduced today will tighten up quickly enough to make a big difference on the intake.”
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Watch below: Liberals accuse Kenney of flip-flopping on the temporary foreign workers program

Critics have also noted that without proper oversight it’s impossible to properly enforce even the rules that existed previously to protect workers.

With all that in mind, here are some changes to the program announced Friday and who wins or loses with each one.

Reform: Temporary foreign workers making below provincial median wage can only work in Canada two years, down from four

Potential losers: Temporary foreign workers

Migrant Workers Alliance for Change coordinator Syed Hussan called the changes a “huge step back” and equated the new two-year limit to a “deportation order.”

“This will result in thousands of people being separated from their families, people will be pushed out earlier than expected,” Hussan said . “It’s a knee-jerk reaction to a few news stories that pit migrant workers against unemployed workers.”

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Hussan said the reforms won’t change low wages or difficult working conditions faced by many of the temporary workers, but instead “creates a revolving door, so one group of migrant workers go out and another comes in.”

Reform: Must apply to the program every year, instead of every two – and more expensive fees: $1,000 from $275

Potential losers: Employers and workers

Though employers could be seen as losers for having to pay more, Yalnizyan said traditionally the worker in question ends up with the cost. She said often employers take the approval fee off of workers’ paycheques or rent; there are “hundreds” of ways it can be passed through if not monitored correctly, she said.

Reform: Only 30 per cent of a worksite’s employees can be temporary foreign workers making below provincial median; that percentage drops to 10 by July, 2016.

Potential winners AND losers: Workers and employers

For companies who’ll have to pay more of their workers a higher wage this could be seen as a “loss.”

But Yalnizyan notes we have no idea what percentage of anyone’s workforce meets this criterion.

“How do we know what proportion are anywhere near 30 per cent?” she asked. “We don’t have the labour market info that we need and we’re unlikely to get it. … They’re throwing out these numbers, and they sound great, but does that mean some employers will be able to apply for more?”

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Hussan said the new limit on the number of how many migrant workers employers can have will be detrimental to workers’ wellbeing, causing them to get locked into a “bad” employer.

“If you know for a fact that there are no jobs in your industry, you’re much less likely to leave your job. You are a lot less likely to complain about bad working conditions, particularly if your employer knows it, too. It’s locking workers into a cycle of bad jobs.”

Hussan accused the government of presenting reforms that contradict recommendations that’ve already been made:

“The recommendations were permanent immigration status, improvement of labour laws, improvement of protection. This does not do any of that.”

Toronto Workers Action Centre spokesperson Deena Ladd agrees that Friday’s changes don’t address concerns surrounding the program.

“People are very concerned that we are not allowing workers to immigrate into Canada—instead, workers go through an incredibly brutal program that keeps them tied to an employer that provides very little protection against abuse.”

Watch below: NDP says temporary foreign worker reforms do “far too little” to address systemic problems

With files from Global News’ Erica Vella and The Canadian Press


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