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Temporary foreign workers in a lunch room prepare to start work on the construction of a new police station in Edmonton, April 30, 2012. (Jason Franson For The Globe and Mail)
Temporary foreign workers in a lunch room prepare to start work on the construction of a new police station in Edmonton, April 30, 2012. (Jason Franson For The Globe and Mail)

Commentary

CFIB head defends foreign-worker program Add to ...

Canada’s employers are facing a serious, continuing shortage of qualified labour. But there is no shortage of strong feelings on the issue of temporary foreign workers (TFW), and so much of it has very little to do with the federal program itself.

It seems fairly clear that what happened at RBC has much more to do with outsourcing jobs overseas than it does with the TFW program, which brings in foreign workers for jobs in Canada. Canadians – who don’t like the idea of a profitable bank outsourcing jobs overseas – have every right to comment, but let’s at least stick to the issue at play: outsourcing jobs overseas.

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What has happened instead is that unions and others have twisted the issue into an attack on Canadian small-business owners that bring in TFWs to fill desperately needed entry-level, semi-skilled and trades positions in Canada. What is most frustrating is that small employers – who are doing everything right – may get caught in the crossfire of heavier regulations, more fees and further delays.

The fact is, small businesses – particularly in low-unemployment, higher-wage areas of western Canada – rely on the TFW program to fill jobs many Canadians, for whatever reasons, don’t seem to want to do. It’s not that they are bad jobs, and lots of Canadians do them. It’s simply that there aren’t enough Canadians to fill them.

I can tell you from talking to small-business owners that the process of hiring a foreign worker is long and costly. First, the business has to advertise the job locally, usually for six weeks. If locals apply and are not hired, reasons must be given. To find foreign applicants, Canadian businesses often have to pay recruiters. Then, before hiring a foreign worker, they must have the salary approved by the government.

Finally, for many jobs, the employer is required to pay for the worker’s travel to and from Canada. No business owner is going to go through all this cost and hassle if there is someone in the local area willing, able, and qualified to work in that job. If a small firm is trying to find a qualified person through the TFW program, it is because they have exhausted all other avenues.

The assertion that the 15-per-cent rule allows employers to pay foreign workers less and will drive down wages for Canadian workers is completely false. The rule was brought in to help deal with situations where employers, particularly in smaller cities and towns, were required to pay foreign workers more than Canadians because the government-approved “prevailing wage” was skewed toward wages at big businesses. The 15 per cent is simply to allow some specific small businesses a bit of flexibility in setting wages and to ensure foreign workers and Canadians are making the same wages in those businesses, as the TFW rules clearly state.

The TFW program does need to be reformed. For starters, it should become a lot less bureaucratic and time-consuming for small businesses with a solid employment record that need to fill legitimate labour gaps. It should not be used to help Canadian firms train to take jobs overseas.

Most importantly, there should be a clear, national pathway for all temporary workers – including lower-skilled immigrants – to become permanent residents and ultimately Canadian citizens so they can continue to help build the economy and our communities. It is crazy that we bring in terrific workers, help them gain Canadian experience and language skills, and then wave goodbye after they hit their four-year hard cap. Then we invite PhDs and those with multiple graduate degrees to Canada for permanent residency and make them miserable when they end up doing jobs they are vastly overqualified for.

One of the greatest long-term issues plaguing Canada’s immigration system is the fact that highly skilled immigrants are doing lower-skilled jobs. We’ve spent tons of time and money to fix the challenge of foreign credentials recognition. However, we haven’t spent any time looking at the other root cause for this issue – the country is short on entry-level, semi-skilled and trades workers.

When my Ukrainian ancestors came to rural Manitoba, they weren’t coming to fill positions as lawyers and scientists, they came to work on farms or start one of their own. But they were keen to work hard and help educate their children and grandchildren.

But if we as Canadians are unwilling to consider positions in many sectors of the economy and we don’t really want to move away from our friends and families – particularly to rural Canada – what is an employer to do? And given there are many people around the world who would love to come to Canada to do these jobs, especially if it gave them a path to permanent residency, why are we lighting our hair on fire in the first place?

Dan Kelly is president and CEO of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), which represents the interests of small and medium-sized businesses and lobbies on behalf of its 109,000 members at the federal, provincial and municipal levels.

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