Canadians have a love-hate affair with foreign workers. We're worried that they're stealing jobs from needy, unemployed Canadians, including our own kids. But we also know we can't live without them. Who would pack our fish and pick our peaches? How would the upper middle class survive without Filipino nannies to mind the kids?
There's also the touchy matter of work ethic. Dan Kelly, head of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, bluntly says that it's tough to find Canadians who are willing to do menial work, who will show up on time, who won't yack on a cellphone for half the shift and book off sick the next day. There might be a certain truth to this. And no matter what employers do, it's hard to fix a bad attitude with training, or even an extra three bucks an hour.
(What is the temporary foreign worker program? Read The Globe's easy explanation)
Also, labour is sticky. It's hard to get someone to move from New Brunswick to Saskatchewan to take a crappy job, even if it does pay more.
So it's no wonder the Temporary Foreign Worker Program got out of control. Everybody benefits – as long as you don't look too closely. Originally designed as a temporary fix for employers who needed critical skills, it morphed into the path of least resistance for businesses that need cheap, reliable help. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of temporary foreign workers in Canada. Most of them are in the restaurant and hotel industry, food processing and cleaning. The people they hurt the most aren't your neighbours or your kids. They're the more marginal people in the labour market – new immigrants, aboriginals, high-school dropouts.
The Parliamentary Budget Office, as well as the C.D. Howe Institute, say temporary foreign workers are indeed reducing the number of job vacancies. Those workers aren't just flipping fast food at McDonald's and Tim Hortons. They're working for Sears, Canadian Tire, Manulife and Loblaws.
Up till now, the politicians didn't mind. Many of them (including Justin Trudeau) have helped to ease the way for constituents who want to bring in labour from abroad.
In fact, hardly anyone minded, before the CBC uncovered several cases of abuse. Now, the program is political Kryptonite, and the Conservatives know it. To voters, it illustrates the bad side of capitalism – a violation of the basic rules of fairness. The government will do whatever is necessary to control the damage, damn the consequences.
The United States has a different way of ensuring a constant supply of cheap and willing labour. It's called "Mexicans." The reason nobody there is really serious about cracking down on illegal immigration from Mexico is that large parts of the U.S. economy depend on it. Many ordinary Americans believe Mexican immigration (legal and illegal) is depressing wages and undermining the market for labour, but political elites left and right are unwilling to do anything about it.
Foreign workers have created a dilemma all over the developed world. Every country thinks it can import them – temporarily, of course – then send them back home. That's not always so easy, though. Most don't want to go home. They want to stay in Canada and bring in their families, or start families here. In Europe, foreign worker programs have turned into a form of backdoor immigration.
A lot of people think that wouldn't be a bad idea. Some labour unions, migrant-worker groups and enthusiasts of higher immigration levels argue that the answer to the dilemma is to give temporary foreign workers the right to become citizens. After all, we now do this with nannies and other live-in caregivers, who are allowed to apply as permanent residents after two years of work.
The trouble with this solution is that it amounts to importing poverty. That's what's happened in countries such as Germany, where foreign workers and their descendants have created significant social challenges. That's what's happened in the United States, where the incomes and education levels of people of Hispanic or Latino origin have lagged far behind. Canada's immigration policy is the most successful in the world because we select people with a lot of skills and education – not ditch-diggers and hotel maids.
Unfortunately, the example of nannies and other live-in caregivers (90 per cent of whom are from the Philippines) doesn't support the optimists. The vast majority apply for permanent residency the moment they're eligible, and most are accepted. Virtually all leave live-in care for other work. But few move up the income ladder, and their children have been found to do poorly in school. Due to popular demand from upper-middle-class voters, the federal government's response has been to vastly expand the program.
There's no good answer to the problem of temporary foreign workers. So long as people want cheap, reliable labour, any program we devise will be open to abuse. The abusers will always be regarded as despicable (unless they happen to be us). Immigration might solve some problems, but would surely create others.
There's only one thing we know for sure: We're hooked.