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TFW abuses expose Harper’s hollow commitment to free markets

Headshot of Campbell Clark for logos of Ottawa bureau staff. June 18, 2010.

Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail/brigitte bouvier The Globe and Mail

It's not clear exactly when Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney lost faith in free markets, but somewhere along the line they obviously started to believe in state intervention. At least in labour markets.

That's what the Temporary Foreign Workers program became during its rapid expansion, much of which happened while Mr. Kenney was immigration minister: the government putting its heavy hand into the labour market.

Now that he's the employment minister, Mr. Kenney is warning employers who abuse the system they'll be punished. But he's missing the point: the program itself has grown into abuse. That's why cracking down on a few abusers probably won't be enough to stem this political liability.

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The headline cases, where employees of McDonald's franchises in Victoria and a pizzeria in Weyburn, Sask., complained they were laid off or pushed aside for lower-paid foreign workers, are one ugly symptom of a bigger problem. The government shouldn't be offering thousands of special visas to fast-food joints seeking burger flippers, or for many of the other low-skilled jobs Temporary Foreign Workers fill.

To be fair to Mr. Kenney, he wasn't the one who started allowing low-skilled workers to come to Canada as temporary foreign workers. The Liberals created a pilot program in 2002, and Mr. Kenney's Conservative predecessors, Monte Solberg and Diane Finley modified it in 2007. The current "stream for lower-skilled workers" has been the biggest part of the massive expansion of the temporary foreign workers program under Mr. Harper's government.

Mr. Kenney and his Conservative colleagues say they believe in free markets. But markets work on supply and demand. If people aren't buying your product, you have to lower your price. And if people aren't willing to work for you, you have to raise your wages. Instead of letting that equation play out, they let government intervene to change supply.

If a McDonald's franchise in Victoria can't find someone to take a $12 an hour job, they could offer $15 an hour, or $20. Or, they could pay $275 to apply for a labour-market opinion from Mr. Kenney's department that there's a shortage of workers willing to take a job at the "prevailing" wage, and then fly over temporary foreign workers.

It's not really temporary, either. The worker can stay for two years, and the employer can apply to hire somebody else under another labour-market opinion.

The number of people in Canada under those labour-market opinions grew from 82,210 people in 2005, before the Conservatives took power, to 202,510 in 2012, according to statistics from Mr. Kenney's department, Employment and Social Development Canada.

The number one occupation group isn't engineers, it's" food counter attendants, kitchen helpers, and related occupations," with 17,755 people. Waiters, cooks, and cashiers are all in the top 20.

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Immigration policy does play a role in the labour markets, by determining the number who come and the qualifications they need to come. But the government should have a good public-policy reason before it intervenes to tinker with supply and demand at employers' request.

There could be a gap in a highly-specialized or highly-skilled profession that Canadians just can't fill for the time being. There's always been a separate stream for agricultural workers, and that's perhaps justified because it's back-breaking seasonal work and the farm sector can't risk a labour-shortage at harvest.

Diana MacKay, the director of education, skills, and immigration at the Conference Board of Canada, said the start-up of a large resource-industry project could place a sudden demand for labour in a relatively remote location. And there are, she said, obstacles to mobility that reduces the willingness of some to move for a job.

But there's no compelling public-policy reason to help a fast-food franchise find workers at the wage they want to pay. Can a McDonald's in Victoria really claim no Canadian will take a job there, no matter what the wage?

Yes, some employers like this program. Dan Kelly, of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said a lot of employers say it's increasingly difficult to "find people who are available to work and will show up with a smile on their face, and not be on their phone for half the shift." But the government can't justify guest-worker programs because some employers think these kids today have the wrong attitude.

Politically, it's not going to be easy to justify the expansion of temporary foreign workers. Most Canadians thought it was a program to fill temporary skills shortages, not to have the government micro-manage the labour pool in jobs Canadians can do. Each case of alleged abuse underlines not simply that the program is open to abuse, but that it's gone off the rails.

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Follow me on Twitter: @camrclark

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