Skip to main content

The guy who cut my hair last week taught me something about the Temporary Foreign Worker program: It’s even looser than I thought.

Fixing that, and a number of other things that aren’t quite right about the immigration system, comes down to the Trudeau government. So, don’t hold your breath.

After Sean Fraser was shuffled from Immigration Minister to Housing Minister on Wednesday, he said Canada can’t “close the door on newcomers.” As if that’s what the government’s critics are asking for. Is it possible for Canadians to discuss a serious economic issue, seriously? Or is polarizing name-calling all that our politics has left?

The Liberals have a habit of crafting marketing strategies before policies, and then having policies become hostage to the talking points. Immigration is such a case. We’re about to find out whether the Liberals can make a course correction, or whether they’ll double down on the polarizing talking points, attacking suggestions for reform as so much xenophobia.

The Liberals have raised Canada’s immigration targets, year after year, while also making it ever easier for businesses to recruit low-wage, not-so-temporary temporary foreign workers, and schools to enroll hundreds of thousands of overseas students – many of whom seek student visas in part for the chance to become low-wage, not-so-temporary temporary foreign workers.

One of the negative consequences is that the national housing squeeze has been made worse, with a big jump in postpandemic arrivals pushing high prices higher and low vacancy rates lower. It’s not political. It’s just arithmetic.

The Liberals could fix things – not by stopping immigration but by scaling it back, and making it more targeted to highly skilled economic immigrants. The latter is supposed to be the core mission of our immigration system. Returning to that common-sense approach would benefit Canadians and the economy.

And now, back to my neighbourhood barbershop. The place was empty when I walked in on a Friday afternoon, so I dropped into a chair and started chatting with the barber. He spoke excellent English with a Spanish accent, and I asked where he was from.

“Mexico,” he said.

How long had he been in Canada?

“One year and seven months.”

Why did he come to Canada?

“I looked online for jobs, found one I wanted and applied.”

Temporary Foreign Worker program?


He gave me a good haircut (as good as can be when the subject has little more than half a head of hair) and a better insight into one part of the immigration system.

It’s perfectly reasonable for Canada to have a system for filling temporary gaps for highly skilled labour. That’s what the TFW program is supposed to do.

But that’s mostly not what it’s doing. Instead, it’s offering low-pay, low-skill and low-productivity employers a way to recruit overseas, at low cost, rather than having to search harder at home, or offer higher wages, or invest in technology and training to increase efficiency.

The government of Canada’s TFW Job Bank has around 10,000 postings from employers searching for a temporary foreign worker. Most jobs offer a salary of less than $40,000. Nearly all pay less than $60,000, which is below the Canadian average.

There are, for example, 17 employers looking for barbers, from Edmonton to Hamilton to Montreal, with pay starting at $15 an hour.

There are also some high-wage jobs. A Vancouver health care provider is looking for five family physicians, at a salary of $300,000 to $350,000. A veterinary clinic is offering up to $190,000 for an emergency vet. eBay Canada in Toronto is seeking a software engineer, at a salary of $160,000 to $180,000.

But the TFW database is mostly low-wage work.

Home Hardware in Woodstock, Ont., is seeking two cashiers at $16.55 an hour. A Mac’s Convenience in Edmonton is looking for one cashier at $15 an hour. City Avenue Market in Port Coquitlam, B.C., needs a cashier, at $17 an hour.

A Tim Hortons in Sherbrooke, Que., wants seven “assistant waiter/waitress,” at $15.25 an hour. Western Pizza in Regina has four vacancies for servers, at $14 an hour.

All of those low-wage jobs, along with most others I looked at, were listed as full-time and permanent. These aren’t temporary positions, even though that’s what the TFW program is notionally about.

And I haven’t touched on the larger but more opaque group of foreign workers: those who come on a student visa, work at low-wage service jobs, and then use Canadian educational credentials plus Canadian work experience in hopes of landing permanent residency in the country.

If everyone on that path was a graduate in engineering, computer science or other highly paid fields, the system would make sense. But a large share of the visa students are not.

As I wrote earlier this week, our plans to use the various immigration streams to raise GDP per capita are being undermined by too heavy a focus on filling low-wage, low-skill jobs.

We can make our immigration system better. But first, we need an honest conversation about what our immigration system aims to do. And what’s not working.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe