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Foreign worker reforms don’t solve problem




Thomas Walkom

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Employment Minister Jason Kenney is trying to reform the unreformable.

The federal government's temporary foreign workers program, invented by the Liberals and expanded by the Conservatives, was always a bad idea. It still is.

It subverts Canada's long-held approach to immigration by creating two classes of newcomers. And it allows employers to avoid paying higher wages.

Kenney's reforms dance around the edges. But ultimately, they solve neither problem.

That Canada was built through immigration is a truism.

Historically, ours was immigration of a very specific type, one that involved a pact with newcomers. These newcomers could come and work here. In return, they would be accorded full citizenship rights.

There were notorious exceptions, such as 19th- and 20th-century restrictions against Chinese immigrants.

By and large, however, that was the deal: Come to Canada; work hard; get your citizenship.

The temporary foreign workers program confounds the historic bargain. Foreigners are recruited to work here for specific employers for a specific period of time. But in the vast majority of cases, they are not offered a path to citizenship in return.

That leaves them open to exploitation from unscrupulous bosses (temporary workers who lose their jobs risk losing their visas).

It also lets employers avoid paying Canadian workers higher wages.

That's where, under the Conservatives, the temporary foreign workers program went right off the rails.

In a country where the official unemployment rate hovers near seven per cent (the real jobless rate is well above that), there is no shortage of labour willing to work at low-skilled jobs.

What there may be, however, is a shortage of Canadians willing to accept the wages and conditions that these jobs offer.

The market solution would be to offer higher wages and better conditions in the hope of attracting workers. The Conservative solution has been to let fast-food outlets and others import temporary foreign workers willing to accept whatever wages employers offer.

Intellectually, Kenney seems to understand this contradiction. Last Friday, he pointed out that real wages adjusted for inflation have fallen in Alberta's food service industry — thanks to its use of temporary foreign workers.

His reforms would prevent employers in the food, accommodation and retail industries from hiring temporary foreign workers whenever the local unemployment rate is six per cent or higher (which, tellingly, excludes his home province of Alberta). But he very specifically limited this ban to what economists call the non-tradable goods and services sector.

Other sectors that produce commodities traded across borders — including farmers, manufacturers, miners, meat processors and fish packers — would be able to hire temporary foreign workers, regardless of the local jobless rate.

Incidentally, hotels and restaurants in high unemployment areas can also continue to hire certain kinds of foreigners — such as students — under reciprocal trade agreements. These temporary foreign workers are not covered by Friday's announced reforms.

The move to temporary foreign workers began slowly. First, there were the low-wage seasonal agricultural workers, allowed in to help Canadian farmers savaged by free trade. Then there were the nannies, brought in so that working Canadian parents could get cheaper, in-home child care.

Then came temporary skilled workers because, it was said, Canada didn't have enough plumbers and electricians. Now we are importing temporary foreign labour for just about anything.

Public pressure has forced Kenney to make the arrangement seem more palatable. But it is not. If we need more foreign labourers, let them come as full-fledged immigrants.

If paying Canadian fast-food workers a decent wage means we must shell out more for a cup of coffee, so be it.

Thomas Walkom is a news services columnist.


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