When unemployment is high in any country, the fear that low-skilled foreign temporary workers are taking jobs from native jobseekers becomes a heated issue.
Canada is the latest country to address the issue. On Tuesday, the House of Commons debated a recent ban on the hiring of foreign temps in the food services industry in the wake of alleged labor violations by McDonald’s franchise operators in Alberta and British Columbia. The ban is in effect until the federal government completes a review of the program. Like Canada, the U.S., as part of the broader immigration debate, is considering reforms of its guest worker policy, which critics say is exploited by recruiters and employers to avoid paying higher wages to American workers. And Australia is on the verge of tightening its regulations for temporary guest workers as well.
“The temporary foreign workers program, when it was in its original form, was small and limited to a few sectors and basic needs,” opposition Liberal Party MP John McCallum told International Business Times by phone on Tuesday. “But under the Conservative government it has proliferated to the point where there are as many temporary foreign workers as there are permanent immigrants.”
Canada, which has one of the most open immigration policies on the planet, has long sought skilled permanent immigrants to contribute to its economic development. In 1973 it created the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which allowed employers seeking expatriates with specific skills to hire from abroad after demonstrating extensive efforts to find locals first.
But since 2006, when Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper took office, that program has undergone significant changes. Employers no longer need to spend weeks finding Canadian citizens first by taking out advertisements in newspapers – they need only post "help wanted" ads for at least 10 days on official government sites. The number of years that guest workers can be employed before they have to reapply has risen from one to four years. And in 2012 the Conservatives implemented a rule allowing these foreign temps to be paid 15 percent less than the average local wage for the same job, a move welcomed by employers who are always seeking way to lower their payrolls.
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The result of these reforms: a 40 percent increase in the number of guest workers since 2006, according to official figures. There are currently about 340,000 foreign temps in the country at various skill levels, and about 200,000 of them are approved annually for up to four-year stints. If the current trend continues, next year more guest workers will enter the country than permanent migrants, meaning that the proportion of skilled workers the country has long sought will be smaller than the population of temporary workers employers seek as a cost-saving measure.
On Tuesday, the Liberal Party called for Canada's general auditor to review the guest worker program. Liberal MPs are asking for a scaling back and retooling of a program they say fills a specific and important need -- especially in agriculture -- but requires more scrutiny to ensure that Canadians aren’t being shut out of the labor market by these foreign temps. If there’s a genuine lack of local workers to fill these positions, some MPs say the temps should be put on a path to permanent residency.
“If you’re good enough to work here, you’re good enough to live here,” said MP Jinny Sims of the leftist New Democratic Party, the official opposition, during Tuesday’s debates on the House floor.
Restaurateurs, meanwhile, are up in arms over last month’s decision by Employment Minister Jason Kenney to temporarily suspend foreign temp employment in their sector.
“The majority of restaurant operators using the program operate in complete compliance, and it is unfortunate that their businesses and employees will be hurt by the broad-stroke approach,” Restaurants Canada said when the moratorium was announced. “Albertans in particular will remember what it was like a few years to go to find restaurants closed because of a shortage of workers.”
Canadian youth unemployment was 13.6 percent in March, flat from the year-ago period. The general unemployment rate declined 0.4 percentage points to 6.9 in the same period, indicating that Canadians aged 15 to 24 – more likely than older Canadians to fill low-skilled restaurant and hospitality jobs – have seen their job prospects stagnate while the general workforce conditions have improved over the past year.