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Migrant workers pick strawberries at a strawberry farm in Pont Rouge, Que., on Aug. 24, 2021.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Catherine Connelly is a Canada Research Chair and professor of organizational behaviour at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University, and the author of Enduring Work: Experiences with Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Big changes to the temporary-foreign-worker program are constantly being announced, but the actual changes tend to fall short of the hype. For example, the number of low-wage temporary foreign workers in some sectors has been recently capped at 20 per cent per workplace instead of the previous 30-per-cent limit, and a labour market impact assessment (LMIA) will now be valid for only six months instead of one year. (The assessments are used to determine whether Canadian workers are available for a job before a foreign worker may be hired.) A Senate report is proposing more changes to the TFW program. Will they make a difference?

All this tinkering has been a lost opportunity. Concern about temporary foreign workers’ impact on the economy has overshadowed the issue of the workers’ welfare, which is no less important.

One major change would immediately protect temporary foreign workers without being too bureaucratic: Open work permits should be provided to temporary foreign workers to allow them to quit one job and apply for a new one.

Every year, more and more employers are fined or blacklisted for abusing workers or otherwise misusing the TFW program. Clearly, compliance monitoring has not been able to prevent this. Unscrupulous employers – whose shady practices make it tougher for them to recruit Canadians – can be tempted to underpay or otherwise mistreat their temporary foreign workers without worrying they will quit and work elsewhere. Even the threat of workers quitting will be enough to prevent some abuses.

Currently, temporary foreign workers are sometimes granted an open work permit if they can prove they have been mistreated. However, some types of mistreatment are easier to prove than others – a pay stub can be used to show wage theft but sexual harassment or assault is difficult to prove at the best of times. Open work permits allow workers to seek other employment even if they cannot prove they are being mistreated, or before a problem becomes serious.

Open work permits align with one of the principles of capitalism: a free-market economy. In a free market, workers can move freely between jobs. As workers move around to take better jobs, pay and working conditions improve for all workers, but the best employers – who treat their workers the best – receive the best workers. If Canada truly has labour shortages, then having a temporary foreign worker quit one job and take another one still addresses the economic needs of the country as a whole, without penalizing individual workers.

Employers boost recruitment of temporary foreign workers, despite softer labour market

To be sure, some employers will argue that because they pay $1,000 for a LMIA to hire a temporary foreign worker, they expect an employee who will stay long enough for them to recoup their investment. Employers especially do not want to pay to recruit a temporary foreign worker who will cross the street to work for a competitor. However, these challenges are the same as what other employers, who don’t use the TFW program, deal with every day. Managers who want to keep their workers need to provide realistic previews of what the job involves, pay competitively and treat their workers well.

The recent Senate report has suggested that temporary foreign workers should receive sector-specific work permits that would enable them to quit a job and apply for a new one, as long as it is in the same industry. This stipulation is bureaucratic and unnecessary. Canadian companies are not going to hire temporary foreign workers to do something dramatically different than their recent Canadian experience warrants. Google is not suddenly going to start hiring agricultural workers. That said, if a worker has developed transferable skills and a social network that allows them to get a better job, why not allow them to pursue it? The worker and the Canadian company both benefit.

Others have suggested we do away with work permits and simply provide permanent residence to all workers when they arrive. The worker would then have all the employment rights a Canadian has. Unfortunately, this approach is likely to slow the process to hire a foreign worker even further. The LMIA process already takes months, and if the additional background checks for permanent residence are added, hiring a temporary foreign worker becomes an even lengthier process. Open work permits are simpler and more efficient.

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