Nadine Rana’s family has been proudly cleaning clothes for more than 50 years.
Her parents immigrated to Canada from the West Indies in the late 1960s and opened a dry cleaner in Toronto’s east end. Rana now runs the business with the hope her children might one day take over.
But between COVID-19, which nearly forced Rana to close, and the struggle to find workers now that business has picked up again, that hope is quickly fading away.
“I have a daughter in second-year university and she’s saying, ‘I’m not sure I want that kind of life,’” she said.
Rana has dreams of expanding her business and offering clients new services. But right now, she’s struggling just to keep up.
She’s short three full-time employees and recently had to hire an HR firm that specializes in finding new workers. In the meantime, Rana said, her mother, who’s past retirement age, is picking up the slack, working extra hours and coming in on weekends.
Rana also said she doesn’t have the time or money to go through the process of hiring a foreign worker, either on a temporary or permanent basis.
“This is too much,” she said. “We are so short staffed and so burnt out that we can’t keep up.”
Depending on the type of application, hiring a foreign worker can take anywhere from two weeks to two years, according to published timelines.
Recruitment is also competitive: there are about one million job openings across Canada, many of them in low-wage industries.
Researchers say current labour shortages mean Canada needs to stay competitive when seeking out newcomers. It may also require rethinking who qualifies as an “ideal” immigrant.
“When we think about immigration in Canada, we’re a little bit greedy,” said Howard Ramos, a sociology professor at Western University.
“Canadians can’t take it for granted that we’re the only country in town people want to come to.”
Supply and demand
Canada’s population is shrinking — at least it would be were it not for immigration. This has huge implications for the Canadian job market.
Statistics Canada says nine out of 10 people entering the workforce for the first time in Canada are new immigrants. Projections show that by 2032, all of Canada’s population growth will come from immigration.
And despite the obvious need for a next generation of workers – recent census data shows the share of Canada’s population under 15 years old is smaller than the population over 65 – Canada’s immigration system is frequently criticized for being slow and outdated.
For example, the current backlog of permanent resident applications exceeds 500,000 cases.
To address labour shortages and changing demographics, Canada recently announced plans to welcome 1.5 million new permanent residents over the next three years. It’s an increase of about 25 per cent over the past three years.
The strategy emphasizes economic migrants: young, well-educated people the government believes have the skills and resources needed to thrive in Canada.
It places Canada at or very near the top of the list of high-income countries that welcome the most immigrants each year, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
But some small business owners worry the plan won’t be enough to meet the need for new workers.
As of June, there were more than 260,000 job openings for service sector workers in Canada, according to government statistics.
The accommodation and food service sector had the highest total number of job openings – more than 160,000 – and the highest overall vacancy rate, at 11.9 per cent.
“Our staff are stretched to the limits,” said Randy Nickle, an A&W franchise owner from Kenora, Ont. “They’re all being asked to work extra. It’s not fair to anybody.”
It’s all about the economy
Labour shortages in Canada are nothing new.
The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program was started in 1966 so farmers could bring foreigners to Canada temporarily to harvest crops and do other work.
The program was later expanded and folded into the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, which allows businesses to hire people from abroad for specific jobs they say can’t be filled by anyone already living in Canada.
Temporary foreign workers are most important to Canada’s agri-food and accommodation and food service sectors, making up 15.5 and 7.2 per cent of the workforce, respectively, according to a 2022 Statistics Canada report.
According to the government, roughly half of all new economic immigrants granted permanent residence in 2018 had previous experiences as a temporary worker.
Syed Hussan, executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, said Canada relies on temporary foreign workers but offers them little to no protection in return.
Hussan said foreign workers, especially those whose work permits are tied to a specific employer, often report feeling pressured to work longer hours, without compenstion, and are forced to accept lower wages for the same work.
A recent Radio-Canada report alleged temporary foreign workers at a Quebec resort were being paid $5 an hour less than their Canadian colleagues in the same jobs.
The union representing the workers has filed a grievance, according to Radio-Canada, and the company said it’s working with the employees and union to resolve any wage concerns.
Hussan, whose organization is calling on the government to give temporary workers permanent status to ensure their rights are protected, said the kind of work foreign employees do is essential to the Canadian economy, even if it’s often low-wage work.
During the worst months of the pandemic, for example, migrant workers, including asylum seekers and temporary foreign workers, were heralded as heroic by the government, he said.
To address long-term labour shortages in a comprehensive way, which also means looking at wages and working conditions, the government must consider all workers in a single plan, Hussan said.
“The (immigration) levels plan never includes temporary workers, which is a fundamental gap,” he said. “This is a plan for rich people.”
Nickle, meanwhile, said he’s hired seven people through the temporary foreign workers program since 2019. He said everyone he helped bring to Canada has dreams of staying long-term.
“To get to Canada it’s about a job,” he said. “(Their) survival is about becoming a permanent resident.”
After working for him for about a year, three of the people he hired through the temporary foreign workers program moved to Saskatchewan in 2021, Nickle said, taking advantage of a pandemic-era program that allowed them to switch jobs without applying for a new work permit first.
Nickle said the jobs his former employees took are in industries that make it more likely they’ll be approved for permanent residence.
While he doesn’t blame his employees for wanting to pursue other opportunities, especially if it puts them on a pathway to residency, he’s upset because he said he spent about a hundred hours and $25,000 applying for them to come to Canada.
That’s time and money Nickle said he can’t get back.
Who’s coming to Canada?
Permanent resident applications are sorted into four broad categories: economic, family, humanitarian and refugee.
How many people get accepted per category each year is based on the government’s priorities and realities of the day.
A recession, for example, could lead to fewer economic immigrants if fewer businesses are hiring, whereas a war or natural disaster abroad could mean accepting more refugees. This is what happened after the Syrian crisis in 2015.
The government’s new plan says about 60 per cent of new permanent residents over the next three years will be economic-class migrants, accounting for about 850,000 people. That’s roughly the population of Winnipeg. It’s also 4.5 times greater than the current backlog of economic-class applications.
These workers include high-skilled workers, such as doctors, nurses and tech entrepreneurs, and people who already worked in certain industries in Canada and who earned enough experience to qualify for residency.
Family-class immigrants, including spouses and dependent children of people already living in Canada, will make up 22.5 per cent of new permanent residents.
This category also includes “sponsored” parents and grandparents of people living in Canada. Research shows these immigrants often provide unpaid child care and household work after they arrive in Canada, which in turn allows parents of young children, especially women, to go back to work or take on more hours.
Humanitarian cases and refugees will make up the remaining 17.5 per cent of new immigrants over the next three years.
Lisa Kaida, a sociology professor who studies the economic integration of immigrants at McMaster University, said this is a good thing, socially and economically.
“This notion of refugees being a burden to the welfare state of Canada is a bit exaggerated,” she said.
Kaida said refugees generally do just as well as other immigrants in terms of employment outcomes and that the income gap between refugees and economic immigrants that exists after they first arrive in Canada generally disappears after about 10 or 15 years.
Student, worker, resident
The growing number of international students in Canada is also helping fill the employment void.
The number of foreign students allowed to study in Canada each year has grown from about 100,000 two decades ago to more than 650,000 today.
International students are allowed to work while studying in Canada. Until recently, the hours they could work were limited to 20 a week, but Immigration Canada lifted this cap in November to help employers fill job vacancies.
The government also views international students as “ideal” candidates for immigration because of their age, education, language proficiency and Canadian work experience.
A 2021 study published by Statistics Canada found that about 30 per cent of students who came to Canada since 2000 became permanent residents within 10 years. This figure increased to 60 per cent for students who worked while attending school.
But advocates say there are downsides to focusing so much on international students as a source for new immigrants.
Hussan, for example, said many students and temporary workers have reported feeling exploited by their employers because their future in Canada depends on gaining enough work experience to qualify for permanent residence.
Many newcomers to Canada also complain that the jobs they get don’t match their skills or qualifications. Both the federal and provincial governments have acknowledged this problem.
“Most of the job vacancies (in Canada) are in low-skilled occupations – accommodation, food service and retail,” said Feng Hou, a researcher at Statistics Canada.
“The question is whether we want to continue to expect immigrants to come here with a university education – master’s degrees and PhDs – to take those jobs, or whether we want to increase wages to motivate people who are already here.”
Hou said attracting new immigrants has become increasingly competitive. It’s not enough to simply consider what immigrants bring to Canada. The government must also consider what Canada offers them.
“If we select highly educated immigrants and we have one-third or half of them working in low-paying jobs, is that something we’ll be comfortable with?” Hou said.
Backlogs and missed opportunities
Processing permanent resident applications is another challenge for the government.
Delays affect employers because it means the person they’re waiting to hire can’t come to Canada.
Depending on the category – economic, family, humanitarian or refugee – it can take anywhere between two weeks and two years or more for the process to be complete.
Right now, there are about 500,000 permanent resident applications waiting to be processed by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
The government said it’s working as fast as it can to process these files, adding that it spent $85 million last year to speed things up and has committed to spending $1.6 billion more over the next six years to help reduce backlogs.
Immigration Canada also recently said it plans to “modernize” its computer systems and hire as many as 1,250 new employees to process applications.
But advocates say long delays, exacerbated by the pandemic and the government’s inability to process some applications digitally, have plagued the system for years.
It’s gotten bad enough that some lawyers have started reporting clients abandoning hope and giving up on their applications.
“I had two start-up clients who later decided to terminate their retainer because of the delay,” said Siavash Shekarian, a Toronto immigration lawyer.
“I also had one serious potential client … who decided to turn to Australia because their business programs were ‘faster and easier.’”
Shekarian said poor customer service is also making Canada a less attractive destination for entrepreneurs who want to set up businesses and invest in the Canadian economy.
He said it’s virtually impossible for his clients to get answers from the government about their cases. And when they do, Shekarian said, it often takes months and the replies are devoid of any substance.
“Customer service is zero,” he said. “We’re bringing these people here, and we’re hoping they become future citizens of this country, and look at their first impression.”