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Employment Minister Jason Kenney, left, and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander in a reflection at a news conference in Ottawa Friday on reforms to the temporary foreign workers program. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Employment Minister Jason Kenney, left, and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander in a reflection at a news conference in Ottawa Friday on reforms to the temporary foreign workers program. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Adelman, Alboim and Molloy

Why not use refugees to solve our Temporary Foreign Worker problem? Add to ...

Howard Adelman is a Professor Emeritus at York University and a founder of Operation Lifeline. Naomi Alboim is a fellow at the Queen’s University School of Policy Studies and a former Ontario Deputy Minister of Citizenship. Mike Molloy is a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, and a former Canadian Ambassador to Jordan.

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Two separate announcements were made by ministers of the Crown on Friday, June 20, World Refugee Day.

The first, made by Chris Alexander, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, announced a contribution of $50.7-million to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to help that organization in its protection and relief efforts with Syrian refugees.

While this is welcomed, there was no announcement by the minister about Canada’s response to the UNHCR’s request to allocate additional resettlement places over the original 1,300 previously agreed to by the Canadian government for these refugees. Nor has there been a clear statement by the minister as to how many of those Syrian refugees have actually arrived in Canada.

The second announcement was made by Jason Kenney, the Minister of Employment and Social Development, and Mr. Alexander, about changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. These changes will make it far more difficult for employers to bring in TFWs to fill low-skilled, low-wage jobs.

There is an important potential connection between these two announcements. This connection was not made by either minister.

World Refugee Day offers an occasion for the government of Canada to seriously consider our country’s contribution to the resettlement of refugees for whom there are no other durable solutions. Recent information provided by the UNHCR shows an ever-increasing need for resettlement and a gap between the need and the opportunities countries such as Canada, the United States and Australia in fact offer. Canada, which used to be a leader in this regard, has now fallen to a distant third place. Last year Australia accepted twice as many refugees from abroad as Canada.

While the number of permanent residents accepted by Canada has remained fairly stable for the past number of years, the proportion of refugees has declined. Simultaneously the number of temporary foreign workers admitted to Canada has increased dramatically, including a 10-fold increase over the period 2002-2013 in those coming to fill low-skilled jobs. Last year, while Canada welcomed 9,600 refugees from abroad, 23,414 temporary workers entered the country as part of the Low Skilled Temporary Foreign Worker Program. If in fact there are sectors and regions of the country where there is a legitimate need for low-skilled workers that cannot be filled locally, we should be looking for better solutions.

These temporary foreign workers have contributed to Canada. However, they face long periods of separation from their families and come to this country with few enforced rights or protections. Nor do they have any possibility of legally converting their status from temporary to permanent even if they and their employers want them to stay. This creates a situation which invites abuse; in fact, the media is rife with reports of abuse of the program and of its workers, as well as labour-market distortions and wage suppression. All of which led to the June 20 announcement of changes to the TFW program.

The primary reason for Canada to select refugees from abroad must continue to be to rescue people from untenable situations and to provide them with protection. However, after refugees arrive here they are eager to become self-sufficient and contribute to their new country by working. The historical record, going back to the postwar period, has been that employers have always found newly arrived refugees to be hard-working, productive and able employees. It should not be all that difficult to create a system to link those recently arrived refugees who are ready to work, with businesses that are currently using the Temporary Foreign Worker program to fill permanent jobs.

By increasing the number of resettled refugees arriving in Canada as permanent residents, accompanied by their family members and on the road to citizenship, and providing employment opportunities to them, we can contribute to our nation-building agenda, fulfil our international humanitarian commitments and respond to labour market needs. The refugees will have a stake in their new communities, jobs to sustain themselves and their children who will grow up as Canadians.

We have only to look around us to see the contributions that refugees, their children, and their children’s children have made to our nation.

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