UPDATE: This article has been updated to include a government response sent after publication.
TORONTO – After years spent expanding the temporary foreign workers program, the Conservative government announced reforms in June aimed to limit the size and scope of a process that was seen by many as hurting both Canadian chances at landing jobs as well as foreign workers’ rights.
But while the Tories cracked down on the temporary foreign workers program, the youth exchange program—known as a “working holiday visa” and officially known as International Experience Canada (IEC)—has more than doubled under their watch: From 28,015 in 2005 to 59,071 in 2012.
Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Armine Yalnizyan calls the youth exchange program “the next stink bomb.”
“It is a source of a lot of very cheap labour that is directly competing with Canada’s young people in fast food industries and retail,” said Yalnizyan.
“Because there’s higher [youth] unemployment in Ireland, Australia, the U.K.—they’re coming here on these programs … And it’s bumping a lot of our own young kids out of the market.”
In 2013, the IEC program accounted for about one quarter of the temporary foreign worker entries—the largest category.
Liberal Labour Critic Rodger Cuzner pointed out that despite this, it was basically left untouched when the reforms were announced. (He acknowledged a reference in the government documents released in June that said: “Reciprocity is the problem,” and “increased efforts to promote the program to Canadians while working on barriers to Canadian participants in some countries” would be made).
And reciprocity does seem to be a problem: An inquiry to Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander obtained by Cuzner showed participation levels from many foreign countries sending workers into Canada reached the capped “reciprocal quota” amount, but Canadian participation didn’t come close.
In 2012, Croatia and the Czech Republic met their capped quotas in sending 300 and 1,150 workers respectively; only two Canadians went to Croatia and 47 to the Czech Republic. Mexico sent 250 workers while Canada reciprocated with two the same year; Poland sent 753 compared to Canada’s four and Taiwan sent 999 versus Canada’s 29.
The highest participation levels from Canadians in 2012 were to Australia, the United Kingdom and France—but those still weren’t evenly matched (7,764 Canadians to Australia was closest with 8,221 Australians coming here; 3,163 Canadians going to the U.K. compared with 5,350 incoming and 2,538 Canucks going to France with 13,985 French workers coming to Canada).
The Conservatives say they are ensuring Canadians are “first in line” for available jobs and reviewing each agreement on a country-by-country basis “to ensure the rate of reciprocity is improved,” according to Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander’s press secretary Alexis Pavlich.
Associate director of the International Migration Research Centre at Laurier University Margaret Walton-Roberts said if Canadian youth aren’t using exchange opportunities to the same degree, it does undermine the “reciprocal” aspect of the policy. Walton-Roberts suggested various reasons for the imbalance: no interest from Canadian youth in going overseas, unable to afford travel costs or other alternatives. She thinks the various TFW program policies could have a negative impact on the youth labour market, but it’s likely a “complex interaction.”
Employers hiring IEC participants don’t need to pass a labour market impact assessment (previously known as labour market opinion or LMO) and Cuzner is worried this gap will be abused.
“Because it is LMO exempt there is nothing stopping employers who have been negatively impacted by the low skilled changes to now recruit through this program,” said Cuzner in an email to Global News. “In fact the government has already been promoting the fact that it is LMO exempt to employers on the program website.”
But it may not make sense to promote the IEC in Canadian cities like Toronto, where Canadian youth are struggling to find work. In 2012, 19 per cent of all temporary foreign workers in Canada were in the city, which at that time had 18 per cent youth unemployment, said Yalnizyan.
“In the middle of 2009 was the worst of the recession, and young Canadians are still not seeing an improvement.”
She acknowledges the possibility that some youth may not be actively searching for work or applying for open jobs, but emphasizes that doesn’t mean we should ignore what she calls a “brand new phenomenon” that the government seems to be ignoring.
“What is the government doing about it?” she asked. “Not only are they not fixing it…But they are also encouraging temporary foreign workers to come in and compete with those entry-level programs.”
And Cuzner agrees, suggesting employment minister Jason Kenney was largely responsible for the expansion of the temporary foreign worker (TFW) program when he was immigration minister.
“Kenny is boasting he fixed the TFW program by implementing changes that will reduce the low-wage (mostly the former low-skill) TFWs by 16,000 in three years; however, the International Experience Canada program has been growing steadily with no indication on Friday that it will be scaled back,” wrote Cuzner.
“Instead the Minister says they will try to promote the program better to Canadian youth; however they seem to be more eager to promote the program to foreign youth and allow more in, as evidenced by increasing the Irish quota this year by over 4,000 positions.”
But Walton-Roberts recognizes the merits in the IEC program, and wonders why there is such an imbalance in participating young foreign workers compared to Canadians.
“There are numerous social, cultural and financial benefits to having international experience exchanges, and if Canadian youth are not taking those opportunities, we do need to know why.”