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Temporary Foreign Workers – the Deadline Dilemma

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By Elizabeth Rose, HR Consultant and Writer

Tens of thousands of people who entered the country under the Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW) Program were to be deported on Wednesday April 1, 2015 due to changes in regulations brought in by the Conservative government in 2011. While advocates for the workers appeal for extensions and leniency, the government stands firm and has promised to hunt down any who go underground. They are also tight-lipped about just how many people were slated to be deported, how many have left Canada, how many applied for permanent status and how many were accepted and/or are unaccounted for.

The TFW Program was created in 1973 as a short-term, last and limited resource for employers if and when there are no qualified Canadians to fill jobs. Originally developed for agricultural workers and live-in caregivers, it expanded over the years to include wide-ranging jobs from fast-food, fish plant and mine workers to engineers and game industry specialists. Between 2002 and 2013, Canada eased the hiring conditions of TFWs several times due to reported labour shortages, especially in western Canada. By 2012 there were over 300,000 TFWs in Canada. Workers come primarily from the Philippines, Mexico, US, and India.

In 2013 several highly publicized cases drew attention to misuses and flaws in the program. Media exposed cases of foreign workers displacing equally qualified domestic workers, due in part to the flexibility at that time for TFW’s to be paid less than minimum wage. In one case a BC mining firm set the ability to speak Chinese as a job condition to block domestic applicants. Consequently, changes were introduced to eliminate wage flexibility, introduce a $275 job application fee for employers, and allow only English or French language requirements.

In 2011 the government introduced a 4+4 rule, which limits a TFW’s stay in Canada to 4 years, with a 4-year subsequent gap before they are eligible to re-apply and return. Foreign workers, many of whom have lived and worked in Canada for a long time, were given the option of applying for permanent residency or leaving the country by April 1, 2015 the first imposed deadline under the 4+4 rule.

There are two sides to every story. Labour representatives, migrant worker advocates and TFW-reliant employers are saying that this may be one of the most inhumane decisions of the current Conservative government, targeting vulnerable foreign workers like those who built our railways.  The workers themselves have done nothing wrong – they came to Canada in good faith, many paying significant fees (some their life-savings) to agents to do so. They work hard, mostly in low-skilled jobs no-one else wants. They pay taxes. Even though they were encouraged to apply for permanent status, low-skilled workers often do not meet the criteria required to stay. Critics say that swapping out one set of foreign workers for another set every four years is no solution.

On the other hand, the government says that it was always intended as a short-term, last resort program. Workers have had four years to apply for permanent residency or leave, and employers have had four years to find other workers. Canadians first – businesses should raise wages and hire Canadians. With the drop in oil prices and Alberta facing a possible recession, the job shortage is not as acute as it was a few years ago. The CD Howe Institute (Commentary No. 407, April 2013) found that when TFW Program rules were eased to address the so-called labour shortage in Alberta and BC, unemployment rates of domestic workers in both Provinces increased.

There are likely to be unintended consequences of the April 1, 2015 deadline.

Many workers may have gone underground. Some industries such as fish-processing plants in the Atlantic Provinces may not be able to operate at full capacity.

Hotel rooms may be less clean and fast-food line-ups slower. Canadian businesses may need to curtail production or defer expansion plans. Immigration agents may be exploiting vulnerable workers desperate to stay by levying high fees and offering false promises.

There are few who believe that the 4-year rule is an ideal solution to this complex problem. Many call for an easier path to permanent residence for TFWs.  Some call for shutting the program down altogether or scaling it back to what it was before the expansion, saying that Canada should not replace real immigration with an exploitive guest worker program, used to drive down wages and fill low-skilled jobs.

A more balanced view is that there is a need for a strategic and well-designed program to fill labour shortages quickly on a temporary basis for the benefit of the economy but that the current program falls short. Recent rule changes have not ‘fixed’ what’s wrong. Part of the problem is a lack of accurate information on our labour market.

What do you think?

Are the Federal government’s changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker program going to:

  • Make it easier for unemployed Canadians to find work?
  • Make it harder for Canadian businesses to find staff?
  • Have little impact on the status quo?


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