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(Deddeda Stemler/Deddeda Stemler)

Temporary foreign workers perform critical jobs Add to ...

Complaints that three McDonald’s franchises in Victoria were favouring foreign workers over domestic aired by the CBC in early April quickly burgeoned into sweeping changes to the program, affecting every sector across the country.

The Tories’ sense of urgency was elevated by polls showing intense media coverage had convinced a majority of voters that a program representing less than 2 per cent of our total work force was stealing large numbers of jobs from unemployed Canadians.

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Rapid response to problems by government is usually worthy of applause, but for a complex program that’s been part of Canada’s economic mosaic for four decades, it’s now clear that the politically driven haste has left serious unintended consequences.

One example is the skiing industry, which employs hundreds of temporary foreign workers, including instructors, which are in short supply in this country. The changes are seriously jeopardizing the coming season, as well as the longer-term economic viability of ski resort operators. David Lynn, president of the Canada West Ski Areas Association captured the view of business leaders in other industries: “We feel that government should deal directly with the people that are abusing the program and not institute a series of draconian changes that impact … people who use the program responsibly,” he told the CBC.

One of those “draconian changes” will tighten the screws from a cap of 30 per cent for low-skilled temporary foreign workers to just 10 per cent by mid-2016. Another change will compound the impact of this tightening in the province having the biggest worker shortages. The definition of “low skilled,” which has traditionally been tied to national occupation codes, will now be defined as workers earning less than a province’s median hourly wage. Given that Alberta has the highest provincial median wage ($24.23 per hour according to a 2013 labour Force Survey), this change will significantly add to the proportion of its temporary foreign work force caught by the lower cap. This double-whammy impact explains the strongly negative reaction from Alberta businesses already struggling to find workers.

Surprisingly, in Atlantic Canada, where provincial unemployment rates are twice as high as in Alberta, a complete phase out of temporary foreign workers for provinces with unemployment rates above 6 per cent is also drawing fire. Nova Scotia Labour Minister Kelly Regan told The Globe and Mail that, “… There may be some fish plants that have great difficulty in getting in the harvest … if they are not able to have temporary foreign workers.”

Prince Edward Island is equally alarmed that the changes would prevent processing of its all-important lobster harvest. Some seafood plants are in rural communities with aging populations as younger people having no interest in working in a fish plant move to the cities. Ironically, another federal government program aimed at helping Atlantic Canada is making the situation worse. Employment insurance benefits that favour Atlantic Canada result in many workers refusing work once they have qualified for EI, making it even harder to find local workers. These realities discredit the very concept of tying foreign worker restrictions to provincial unemployment rates.

Making matters worse, the 360-per-cent fee increase to $1,000 for bringing in a temporary foreign worker falls most heavily on employers whose jobs are actually temporary. The agricultural industry is exempt from the new rules because planting and harvesting requires large numbers of workers for short periods. Fish processors, ski instructors and many other peak-load jobs should also be exempt from rules that are designed for more continuous workers such as in restaurants and hotels.

Still to come are new rules for so-called “live-in” caregivers, which mainly refers to nannies. Hopefully, these will receive more careful consideration including the fact that – since very few Canadians are interested in being nannies – restricting the availability of nannies would very seriously affect the ability of mothers to do the skilled jobs our country needs.

That provinces with the highest unemployment rates share concerns with the province with the lowest unemployment rate serves to illustrate the hazards of precipitous, broad-brush policy changes that don’t consider our country’s complex employment mosaic. It is to be hoped that Employment Minister Jason Kenney will be responsive to the unintended consequences of his new policies. But it’s equally important for Mr. Kenney to publicly recognize that rather than stealing jobs, the majority of temporary foreign workers perform important jobs that otherwise just wouldn’t get done.

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