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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.The Globe and Mail

From pickers to pipe-fitters and burger-flippers, Canadian businesses have become hopelessly hooked on short-term foreign workers.

The controversial federal program that allows employers to hire non-Canadians continues to grow more quickly than the overall Canadian labour market – through good times and bad, and despite persistent unemployment and scant evidence of widespread labour shortages.

A program designed to meet "acute" transitory needs has become a sprawling behemoth.

The influx of foreign workers has almost tripled since 2000. In 2012, nearly 500,000 Canadian jobs were filled by foreign staff, up from 177,700 at the start of the decade.

The total almost certainly grew again in 2013, despite tighter rules Ottawa announced last year to curb misuse.

Since 2007, the number of annual foreign entries has grown 30 per cent – a period in which the overall labour force expanded a meagre 7 per cent.

Foreign workers are progressively moving down the skills ladder – from engineers and university professors to hotel cleaners and Tim Hortons servers. In Alberta, one out of every five hospitality employees is now a temporary foreign worker, according to an industry survey.

The program was back in the news last week when the federal government blacklisted several employers, including a McDonald's franchise in Victoria that was allegedly bringing in Filipino workers when Canadians were apparently ready and able to do the work.

Most policy experts agree that a well-functioning economy sometimes needs foreign labour, when qualified Canadians are either unavailable or unwilling to do the work.

Agriculture is a classic example. Farmers often need help for short periods during harvesting and planting – tough seasonal jobs few Canadians want. Live-in caregivers are another area of need.

But the program has become a crutch for too many employers – an excuse to pay lower wages, or avoid the cost and effort of training.

Some business owners openly acknowledge that demand for the program goes beyond labour supply. It's also about employees' work ethic and reliability.

"The strength of some of the [temporary foreign workers], in terms of their work ethic is – it pains me to say this – but sometimes it is better than that of their Canadian counterparts," Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, bluntly told CBC News last week.

Such comments aren't likely to sit well in Ottawa, where the program has become an awkward reality for a government that preaches "jobs and growth."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's irritation boiled over in January when he complained that the program had grown too large and was too often being abused by employers to the detriment of Canadians. "We have seen very blatant examples of companies using this in ways that were not in the best interests of Canadians," he said.

Those cases include a B.C. mining company that brought in Chinese workers on the premise that it needed Mandarin-speakers, an oil sands contractor that laid off dozens of iron workers and replaced them with foreign labour, and Royal Bank of Canada, where laid off IT workers were asked to train their foreign replacements.

Most troubling is that Ottawa apparently let the program balloon because employers wanted it. It's not just about alleged abuses.

The public-policy rationale for massively expanding the temporary foreign worker program doesn't exist now, and hasn't existed for years.

Warnings of widespread labour shortages are largely a myth, or at least, greatly exaggerated. A recent study by the Parliamentary Budget Officer found "little evidence" of either a national labour shortage or a skills mismatch in Canada.

The Bank of Canada's quarterly business outlook survey similarly discounts the labour-shortage narrative. Roughly one in five companies reported labour shortages in the bank's recently released spring business outlook survey. That marked the third straight decline, and the level of concern is roughly half of what it was through much of the early 2000s.

Even if there were a skills mismatch, importing foreign labour isn't a solution that is in the country's best long-term interests.

The challenge for governments and businesses is to do a better job of matching jobs and the jobless, equipping workers with the tools they need, and ensuring labour mobility across the country.

They owe it to Canadians to check those boxes first before tapping more foreign labour.

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