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Mike Buensuceso at his shop, Asian Central, in Whitehorse, Yukon, on Friday. While Yukon's new temporary foreign worker program will help some small business owners like Buensuceso, others question the need for it in the North.

Ian Stewart/The Globe and Mail

The evidence is mounting that, whatever the Temporary Foreign Worker Program may be accomplishing, it is not the alleviation of temporary labour shortages, its ostensible purpose. There are no widespread labour shortages in Canada. But since the 21st century began, the number of workers in the program has nearly tripled to around half a million.

An employer that wants to hire foreign workers has to apply to the federal government for a "labour market opinion," which is based partly on information from the employer. Allegations about McDonald's franchisees in Victoria and Lethbridge, Alta., together with anecdotal evidence from other parts of Canada, suggest that some companies may actually prefer foreign workers because they believe them to be more willing to work longer and harder at tasks that attract little prestige, more deferential, and willing to work for less – though in some of the McDonald's, they are actually paid slightly more than some of their Canadian co-workers.

Canada's wise and long-standing policy has been to prefer immigrants over temporary workers. Most newcomers to this country come as immigrants, offered permanent-resident status and a path to citizenship. They come to Canada to become Canadians, and even before they attain full citizenship, they are able to enjoy most of the rights of Canadians in the labour market. Workers under the temporary program are a whole other story. There are cases where the program makes sense, but Canada should be wary of creating a large pool of low-wage, temporary guest workers with limited rights, some of whom run the risk of turning into illegal residents when their temporary status ends.

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Employers having trouble finding workers to fill low-skill, low-wage jobs have two choices: attract new employees by raising wages, or find a new pool of people willing to work for less. The point of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program should not be to ensure that businesses never have to consider the first option. And if this country really has a shortage of low-skill workers, Canada should consider taking in more immigrants – future citizens – rather than more guest workers.

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