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A temporary foreign worker from Mexico works on a berry farm in Mirabel, Que., May 6, 2020. A Globe and Mail analysis of figures recently published by Employment and Social Development Canada show that employer demand for temporary foreign labour is soaring at a time of near-record-low unemployment rates and elevated job vacancies.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Employers in Canada were approved to fill more than 220,000 positions through the Temporary Foreign Worker program last year, taking advantage of government decisions that broadened access to migrant labour.

TFW approvals jumped 68 per cent from 2021, according to a Globe and Mail analysis of figures recently published by Employment and Social Development Canada. Over the final three months of 2022, companies were authorized to hire nearly 69,000 positions through the TFW program – the most in a quarter since at least 2017.

The numbers reflect part of the hiring process: Foreign workers still need to get the appropriate permits to fill those positions.

Even so, the ESDC figures show that employer demand for temporary foreign labour is soaring at a time of near-record-low unemployment rates and elevated job vacancies.

Companies also benefited from an overhaul of the TFW program last spring, when the federal government increased employers’ access to low-wage labour, among other changes.

As businesses rush to use the TFW program, Canada is experiencing the largest population gains in decades. The country grew by slightly more than one million people in 2022, a 2.7-per-cent increase that was the most since 1957, according to a recent Statistics Canada report.

Temporary immigration was the primary driver of growth. In 2022, the number of non-permanent residents jumped by around 600,000 on a net basis, a record increase. This group includes international students, along with those temporary workers whose permits are issued outside of the TFW program.

In its report, Statscan said the federal government is deliberately courting more immigrants to boost the supply of labour as the country ages. However, the agency also noted: “A rise in the number of permanent and temporary immigrants could also represent additional challenges for some regions of the country related to housing, infrastructure and transportation, and service delivery to the population.”

In the fourth quarter, farms and food-processing plants were the largest sources of TFW approvals, which is usually the case. Over all, nearly 25,000 roles as general farm workers were authorized to be filled. Procyk Farms Ltd., of Wilsonville, Ont., received 599 approvals in the quarter, the most of any company. Inc. was approved to hire 303 positions, mostly software designers and engineers. The auto-parts maker Linamar Corp. was given the green light to hire 95 mechanical-engineering technologists and technicians through the high-wage stream.

Collectively, the restaurant industry was approved to hire thousands of people, including more than 3,100 cooks. Those employers included franchisees of Tim Hortons and McDonald’s Corp.

Other high-demand roles included truck drivers, construction workers and nurse aides.

The federal government said the expansion of the TFW program was meant to address a shortage of workers, something that companies have openly complained about for years.

In one of last year’s changes, companies are now able to employ 20 per cent of their staff through the low-wage stream of the TFW program, up from a previous 10-per-cent cap for most employers. In seven sectors with “demonstrated labour shortages,” such as restaurants and construction, the limit was temporarily set to 30 per cent. Earlier this week, Ottawa extended the 30-per-cent cap until late October.

However, many economists have criticized those moves, saying it helps companies avoid paying higher wages, and that it could lead to the exploitation of migrant workers, whose immigration status is tied to their employer.

“Unfortunately, we increasingly have a system where our temporary and permanent immigration systems are focused on the same objective – satisfying employers’ current labour needs,” economists Parisa Mahboubi and Mikal Skuterud wrote in a recent memo for the C.D. Howe Institute. “The risk is that the overall immigration system fails to do anything well.”

To hire a TFW, a company must submit a Labour Market Impact Assessment to the federal government, showing that they can’t find local workers to fill their open jobs. The ESDC figures refer to the number of roles that received positive assessments.

Most temporary foreign workers in Canada are not employed through the TFW program. At the end of 2022, there were more than one million active work permits in the International Mobility Program. This group includes a range of workers, such as company transfers from abroad. IMP permits have jumped by 193 per cent over the previous decade.

International students, who mostly don’t need work permits to secure employment in Canada, are a rapidly growing part of the labour force. At the end of last year, there were slightly more than 800,000 active study permits – nearly triple the volume from 10 years earlier.

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