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Canadian companies are ramping up their recruitment of foreign workers to fill a variety of low-wage roles in the service sector, including cooks, cleaners and retail clerks.

In the first quarter, employers were approved to fill about 22,000 positions through the low-wage stream of the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program, an increase of roughly 275 per cent from four years earlier, according to figures recently published by Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC).

From January through March, employers were approved to hire more than 2,800 cooks, making it the most sought-after role in the low-wage stream. Companies were seeking thousands of other workers for the food-service sector, such as cashiers. Construction labourers and nurse aides were also in high demand.

To hire a TFW, companies must submit a Labour Market Impact Assessment to the government, showing they can’t find local workers to fill vacant positions. If those roles are approved, foreign workers must obtain the appropriate permits to begin their employment. The ESDC numbers reflect the first part of this hiring process.

The figures are even higher than presented: ESDC excludes some employers – such as business names that include personal names – from its data set of approvals by company.

Regardless, the figures show a dramatic rise in demand for TFWs.

Not only have employers faced historically tight labour markets in recent years, but the federal government has made it easier to hire through the program. Ottawa overhauled the TFW program last year, with some moves allowing employers to hire a greater proportion of their staff through the low-wage stream.

While these changes were cheered by business lobby groups, they were also criticized by migration experts.

The TFW program “disincentivizes employers from making the effort to reach out to underutilized segments of the labour market, and also to improve wages and working conditions,” said Rupa Banerjee, a Canada Research Chair in immigration and economics at Toronto Metropolitan University.

Instead, the TFW program provides employers with a “cheap, flexible and frankly vulnerable source of labour to fill gaps in the labour market,” she said.

Decoder is a weekly feature that unpacks an important economic chart.

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