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david parkinson

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This is the problem when you're walking a tightrope: You get caught leaning too much one way, the danger is you'll over-correct by leaning too much the other.

Ottawa has found itself on such a tightrope with regard to its Temporary Foreign Workers program (TFW), and had become way too casual about keeping its balance. In response to criticism that the program has ballooned to allow too many cheap labourers to steal jobs from hard-working Canadians, the Harper government – which is responsible for creating the program in its current form in the first place – is preparing to tighten the rules. The new incarnation of the program will be more bureaucratic, more expensive and more difficult for employers to live up to.

As my Globe and Mail colleague in Ottawa, John Ibbitson, reported, the federal government is set to announce changes to the TFW Monday that will require companies applying for TFW permits to commit to firm plans, in writing, to transition from temporary foreign workers to permanent Canadian workers. This will include commitments to "properly advertise for, recruit, train and retain Canadian workers."

There are also plans afoot to charge employers a fee for any permit to hire overseas temporary employees, and to tighten rules that allow companies to pay temporary foreign workers less than what Canadians receive for the same job.

Assuming Ottawa is serious about enforcing this, it will add up to considerably more cost – both in money and time – for Canadian employers. While that may reduce abuse of the program, it may also cause many small employers with legitimate needs to decide that bringing in temporary foreign workers isn't worth the trouble.

In terms of playing to the voters, that's pretty much the point – the Harper government can show that it is cracking down and protecting Canadian jobs.

Except that, in driving companies out of the TFW program, the feds may be starving many businesses of the labour they desperately need to be productive, to grow, to contribute to Canada's economic well-being. That's the purpose of the program in the first place: There are acute worker shortages in pockets of the economy that the domestic workforce simply can't fill, and the economy suffers because of it. Ottawa knows this full well, and understands the need to recruit an immigrant workforce in order to sustain the country's long-term economic health. What's more, the country's demographics tell us that this need isn't temporary; it will only increase in the coming decades as the domestic working-age workforce shrinks.

What Ottawa really needs is an entirely new program that addresses the country's broader, longer-term economic strategy. Temporary worker programs should serve to give the Canadian economy the flexibility to address acute short-term needs to sustain growth and expansion, while helping target, recruit and train a workforce for eventual permanent immigration. The TFW should be a stepping stone to advancing Canada's immigration program and long-term labour needs – not the convenient stop-gap for cost-cutting that it has become, nor the impediment to overseas skills recruitment that it is in danger of becoming.

David Parkinson is a contributor to ROB Insight, the business commentary service available to Globe Unlimited subscribers. Click here for more of his Insights, and follow him on Twitter at @parkinsonglobe.