Jason Kenney, the Minister of Employment, is justified in not backing down on the changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which limit the numbers of foreign workers that large and medium-sized companies are allowed to hire.
Understandably, Jim Prentice, the new Premier of Alberta, is responding to pressures from employers in his province and elsewhere in Western Canada to relax those changes.
The long-standing and well-founded policy of Canada has been opposed to guest-worker programs, with unusual exceptions at the high end for pro athletes and other well-paid professionals, and at the low end for seasonal agricultural workers. But for the most part, Canada has grown its labour force with permanent residents – immigrants – who have a clearly laid-out path to citizenship. This country does not want or need a temporary underclass.
But the exception of the TFW program has unintentionally been allowed to mushroom.
Mr. Prentice has defensively said, "I've never agreed with the suggestion that really this is about Alberta business people trying to underpay." No doubt there is no conspiracy to underpay, but the effect of a large number of temporary foreign workers is, almost inevitably, that wages in less-skilled occupations will be bid down. And remember, rising wages are not a bad thing, if driven by market forces; they are a sign of rising prosperity.
And Mr. Kenney rightly points to the evidence that wages for fast-food workers have been rising more slowly than the rate of inflation, whereas the labour force in Alberta as a whole is seeing solid wage growth. For once, organized labour is in agreement with the Conservative government in Ottawa.
If any provincial government seriously believes that there is not enough immigration into Canada, it can make use of section 95 of the Constitution Act, 1867, as Quebec does in a very substantial way; to a lesser extent, so do Manitoba and British Columbia. Even without new federal-provincial immigration agreements, a province like Alberta can and should encourage recruitment from provinces with higher levels of joblessness, and from aboriginal communities in which unemployment is rife.
Mr. Kenney and the federal government are right to reassert the fundamentals of Canadian immigration policy. Some parts of Canada may need more immigrants – that's a discussion worth having. But more non-citizens with limited legal rights? No thanks.