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Migrant workers from Mexico and locals wade through the water at a Richmond, B.C., cranberry farm in this 2008 photo. (JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Migrant workers from Mexico and locals wade through the water at a Richmond, B.C., cranberry farm in this 2008 photo. (JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Economy Lab

Canada's immigration policy: Who is on the guest list? Add to ...

Armine Yalnizyan is a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives



This week, the Minister of Immigration and Citizenship rightly noted that immigrants are Canada’s ticket to economic growth in the coming years.



The untold story is this: Canada’s growing reliance on newcomers is increasingly turning to temporary foreign workers -- “guest workers” -- rather than new immigrants and future citizens to propel growth.

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The rise in the number of temporary foreign workers has accelerated over the past decade, most rapidly since 2006. Today their ranks eclipse those of economic immigrants.

Labour market shortages will grow in the coming years, as boomers retire in record numbers. How we bring people into Canada to meet our labour market needs will shape the evolving nature of Canada itself. Immigration and temporary foreign workers are two very different answers to the problem of how to sustain our standard of living.



Immigration is driven by people wanting to settle in this country, and the entry quotas are set by public policy to meet the public interest of Canadians. Temporary foreign work permits are issued to meet the needs of employers who, ostensibly, face labour shortages that cannot be addressed by Canadian workers. This process is not based on quotas. In principle and practice, there are no upper limits.

These workers are brought into Canada as, essentially, the guests of the employer. They have few rights (of which they are often unaware). They have no access to services available to other immigrants. Theirs is rarely a path to permanent residency.



In 2010, Canada allowed 182,322 temporary foreign workers to enter Canada to meet employers’ needs. This is the second-highest number on record, the highest being in 2008.



Some temporary foreign work permits are issued for longer than a year, some only for months. Consequently the total number of temporary foreign workers to address employers’ identified labour market needs is higher than the number of entries in a given year.



In 2010, there were 283,096 temporary foreign workers in Canada, doing work that employers asserted there was no Canadian available to do.



That is the highest number of temporary foreign workers on record, but only slightly higher than the number recorded in 2009, during the worst of the recession.



The highest demand for temporary foreign workers stems from the fastest growing economies in Canada: Alberta and Saskatchewan. But every jurisdiction except Newfoundland and Labrador and Nunavut has at least doubled their utilization of these “guest workers”.



The biggest growth in employer demand has been for basic labour or unspecified skills, especially since the recession. In 2000, 11 per cent of temporary foreign workers performed basic labour or unspecified skills; now 34 per cent of them do. They used to primarily fall into the categories of nannies and caregivers, or seasonal agricultural workers. Employers are now using the temporary work permit program to bring in workers for hotels, fast food outlets, janitorial services and factories -- typical Canadian jobs, albeit low-paying.



"The temporary foreign worker program is really about contracting out immigration," says Yessy Byl, a lawyer who volunteers with the Edmonton Community Legal Centre. “In fact the government is setting the stage for a bizarre non-immigration program because those workers can’t immigrate.”



Whether unintentional or not, the shaping of public policy seems to be increasingly off-loaded to private sector interests rather than handled by those charged with addressing the public interest, which include but are broader than employers’ needs.



Local economic needs are an important factor in shaping immigration policy, and the involvement of employers can and should reduce skill mismatches.



But there’s a danger in allowing employers, alone, to define Canada’s immigration policy: Employers are increasingly looking for average workers, not skilled labour.



Cheap labour, that is. Workers who increasingly depend on the goodwill of their employer rather than the rule of law.



This week, the Law Commission of Ontario, in its ongoing efforts to make the law accessible to all residents, started looking at what can be done about the rise of vulnerable workers.



By allowing employers to drive the agenda based on their own short-term interests, the federal government has dropped the ball on Canada’s long-term interests and has taken immigration policy down a troubling path: the normalization of migrant labour in Canada.



For a country that has grown into one of the most diverse, peaceful and prosperous nations on the planet, this shift in immigration policy signals a troubling new direction.



Throughout our history the long-standing offer to newcomers, through unifying families and providing citizenship, was the promise of becoming full participants in Canadian society.



In its place, official policy increasingly sanctions and supports employers who use newcomers as cheap and disposable labour. It's bad for diversity, it's a terrible trend for workplaces, and it affects everyone.



The role of government is to protect the interests of Canadian workers as well as Canadian employers. That includes protecting the powerless from those willing to exploit our vulnerabilities. Backing away from that job turns immigration into a potential source of social tension, just as Canadians increasingly turn to immigrants to assure our economic future.



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