The Conservative government is preparing a second round of changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, as Canadian employers warn an overhaul last year has interfered with their ability to recruit top talent.
The federal government overhauled the program last April in a bid to see Canadians getting first crack at jobs. Since then, the time needed for an approval, known as a Labour Market Opinion (LMO), to bring in foreign workers of all skill levels has ballooned and now takes months – too long, in the eyes of many in the private sector.
"Unfortunately, the reach of the changes and the impact of their changes is significantly interfering with a company's ability to hire that [top] level of talent if that person is from another country," said Janet Ecker, president and chief executive officer of the Toronto Financial Services Alliance. Among bank CEOs, who met with government in the summer, "there was great frustration that a system that was working for this kind of specialized hire had ceased to work," she added.
Employment Minister Jason Kenney is now pledging a second round of reforms within the next two or three months, including the "likelihood" of a new fast-track system for high-skill positions. "I'll ask those who are frustrated with the slow processing now just to be a little bit more patient," Mr. Kenney told The Globe and Mail.
The changes to the TFW Program – criticized by some for undercutting Canadian wages – comes as Ottawa overhauls its immigration system. Canada is launching a new Expression of Interest (EOI) system next year, under which those who "express" interest in immigrating and whose skills match what Canada needs will be invited to apply under a quicker process. "It is truly faster. Six months or better processing will be a revolution," Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said.
He expects it will lower demand for TFWs, who can work in Canada for up to four years. While some apply to stay, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said this month he wanted "more permanent foreign workers" and fewer TFWs, and pointed to EOI as a way to do that. But those critical of the TFW changes also doubt EOI.
Computer programmers and other high-skill workers are globally in demand and unlikely to formally express an interest in Canada, said Jayson Hilchie, president of the Entertainment Software Association of Canada. "It is more likely that we're going to have to go find a person, than for that person to find us. I think EOI will work for some people. I don't think it's going to be the cure for us," he said.
Since 2006, Canada has brought in more than 500,000 Temporary Foreign Workers of varying skill under LMOs. The national Labour Force Survey shows Canada added 1.5 million jobs overall in that period, though Statistics Canada was unable to say whether TFWs were included in that.
The TFW changes came after a series of high-profile problems with the program. "We're trying to strike the right balance in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to ensure that it is a last resort, not a first resort, for employers," Mr. Kenney said. But many in the private sector are frustrated so far.
"The fact the government announces that Canadian workers should fill every vacancy does not mean that it is easy or even feasible to find or train or persuade people to move," said Perrin Beatty, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, which met with Mr. Kenney about the issue this month. LMO wait times in some places are now "crippling," Mr. Beatty added.
Earlier this month, Mr. Harper acknowledged frustration with the changes, according to a recording of a private roundtable with ethnic media obtained by Vancouver's 24 Hours newspaper. "I know some companies are frustrated by this, but we have too many examples of companies that were misleading the government and abusing the system," Mr. Harper said.
While high-skill workers are in demand, other industries continue to push for low-skill TFWs. "We need the stream [of TFWs] continued. There's no doubt about that at all," said Tony Pollard, president of the Hotel Association of Canada, which says its industry faces a labour shortage in many markets, such as resorts and other areas. Government wants to make sure "Canadians are employed in that area – which, in principle, we support completely," Mr. Pollard said. "However, I think there has to be a dose of reality that's injected into this. There are a lot of places where that's just not happening."