June 4, 2019 1:54 pm

Canada’s low unemployment rate boosts demand for temporary foreign workers

Temporary foreign workers sort and grade cherries at the Jealous Fruits plant near Kelowna, B.C., on August 19, 2014. Canada has seen an increased demand for temporary foreign workers amid record jobs numbers.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail
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OTTAWA – Some employers looking to hire temporary foreign workers are experiencing significant delays due to an increase in demand this year for migrant workers in Canada.

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The federal government says the volume of applications is up almost 25 per cent over last year – a development it says is partly because of Canada’s low unemployment rates.

Employers who want to hire migrant workers in the “low-skill stream” are now waiting more than 100 days to find out if their labour market impact assessments (LMIA) will be approved. These assessments are necessary to prove the employer needs to hire temporary workers and that there are no Canadian workers available for the jobs.

Processing times for the “high-wage stream” are 85 days.

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“Unemployment is at a historic low, reaching levels that have not been seen since 1976. While this economic success is good for business, it is also creating challenges for employers who are struggling to find enough workers to meet demand,” said Veronique Simard, a spokeswoman for Labour Minister Patty Hajdu.

“The temporary-foreign-worker program continues to experience an increased volume of labour market impact assessment applications across Canada. Recognizing the urgency of the labour shortage in Quebec and the rest of Canada, our government is taking steps to improve service delivery for the TFW program.”

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Jerry Amirault, a spokesman for the Lobster Processors Association of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, says seafood processors across Atlantic Canada have been experiencing acute shortages in labour, which is why the sector has been increasingly reliant on migrant workers.

A recent study, funded in part by the federal government, shows the situation is projected to worsen if nothing is done. In 2017, 1,800 job vacancies went unfilled in the region due to the lack of fish-plant workers and an additional 2,500 workers will be needed over the next five years to replace retirees, according to the report.

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“There’s no large families in rural areas with eight and 10 children, so there’s nobody filling in for the workers that have been there for some time, so our dependence on bringing in foreign workers is greater,” Amirault said.

“When (government) makes it difficult to get them, what are we left with? We’ve got situations that you wouldn’t believe.”

He said one seafood processing plant recently had to use its office workers to help out on the processing floor and the owner of the company had to help weigh lobsters as they came in from fishermen’s boats.

“That’s how short-staffed they are. They couldn’t open one of their plants in Nova Scotia for the crab season because (the migrant workers) hadn’t arrived.”

Amirault says his industry has been experiencing additional delays on the immigration side, due to a recent change that has seen migrant workers having to submit to biometric screening. He says the labour and immigration departments don’t communicate with each other on these files, which causes further frustrations.

Leah Nord of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce says delays in getting temporary foreign workers will have significant financial consequences for some companies.

Canadian business across the country and across sectors use migrant workers, but they have a lot of frustration with the red tape involved, Nord said.

“If there are even more delays, that’s just going to increase the frustration.”

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The group has been calling for a modernization of the application process, including the introduction of a “trusted employer” program, which could streamline applications for businesses with a proven record of following all the rules of program.

In 2017, former auditor general Michael Ferguson flagged concerns about the management of the foreign-worker program, including employers who often hired migrant workers without first demonstrating they had exhausted all other options for finding local workers and applications that were frequently approved without being challenged.

In response, the government has been stepping up employer inspections and has been publishing the names of those caught breaking the rules. To date, 168 companies have been cited for infractions and given fines or bans on using the program for a set length of time.

Nord says the vast majority of Canadian companies follow all the rules and should not be counted among the “few bad apples.” She says businesses are experiencing increased labour shortages as more Baby Boomers retire, which means employers are increasingly turning to skilled migrants to fill job vacancies.

Hajdu’s department says it is addressing the processing delays, including spending $3.4 million to hire more employees to process applications.

Simard says the department is considering the chamber’s request for a trusted-employer program and is developing an online application portal to modernize and streamline the application process.

© 2019 The Canadian Press

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