Changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program met with criticism

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Photo: Miriam Katawazi

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The federal government changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program received criticism just minutes after the announcement on Friday from opposition politicians and activists across the country.

Liberal MP John McCallum said the changes deserve a grade of C+. NDP MP Pat Martin said that the good news is the fact the government acknowledges the program is broken. The bad news, he adds, is that "they have done little to actually fix it."

Activists advocating for the rights of temporary foreign workers (TFWs) also criticized the new policy changes announced on June 20. Chris Ramsaroop, organizer at the Toronto-based Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW) said these workers would continue to work "without voice, without rights and without protections."

"Genuine reforms would be permanent immigration status, anti-reprisal measures and equal access to social entitlements," he said, adding that by not taking these steps, "we are reinforcing a revolving door system where we are creating a permanent group of temporary workers that are denied rights that Canadians enjoy."

Employment Minister Jason Kenney and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said the changes were made to ensure the program is only used as a last resort to serve the best interests of the Canadian economy, and to address the systematic issues within the program. 

Program changes shorten stays, increase application fees, increase the number of inspections

Kenney described the reforms as a set of three pillars. The first pillar is limiting access to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to ensure Canadians are "first in line." The second is to provide more and better labour market information for stronger screening. The final step, he said, is stronger enforcement and tougher penalties on employers who misuse the program.

The changes will bar employers from hiring foreign workers in regions where there is a high unemployment rate. They also put a cap on the number of low-paid foreign workers that can be hired; only ten per cent of the workforce per employer, per location can be TFWs. Application fees for the program will rise from $275 to $1,000 per worker. There will also be a more stringent screening process for employers to prove foreign workers are needed, and an increase the number and scope of inspections at work sites.

Many of the changes do not apply to on-farm primary agricultural workers, to live-in caregivers and to high-skilled workers coming in through International Mobility Programs.

Both opposition parties argue that the changes are not genuine and are harmful to both Canadians and foreign workers.

Two-tiered approach to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program

The Program is now broken into two separate streams. The first stream will retain the name the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. This program is described, in the briefing booklet, as a last resort for employers unable to find Canadian workers. Temporary foreign workers, it states, are tied to one employer, are low-skilled and predominantly come from developing countries. In order for these workers to be hired by an employer, the employer must pass a Labour Market Impact Assessment.

The amount of time workers in the first stream can be employed in Canada has been reduced to two years from four. This change, McCallum points out may amount to many employers viewing these workers, even more, as commodities. 

The new second stream is called the International Mobility Programs and its objective is to "advance Canada's broad economic and cultural national interest." Most of the individuals coming into Canada though these programs are described in the booklet as highly skilled workers with open work permits, and typically come from highly developed countries. The program is subject to no Labour Market Impact Assessment.

Liberal MP says government must actively seek the help of the provinces

McCallum said the government's changes are disingenuous because it is not making an effort to work on these issues with the provinces. He added that the governments need to work together to prevent abuses towards workers. "I would have actively involved the help of the provinces because jurisdiction over labour market conditions is really in the hands of the provinces," he told reporters

In this new policy the government has committed to "massively increasing" the number of employers inspected each year. At the briefing, just before the news conference announcing the changes, officials said that although it is still unclear, the government is expected to increase the number of inspectors from 40 to 60. 

Last December, when the first set of changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program was introduced, the government announced that it would have the power to inspect workplaces. An Access to Information Act by The Canadian Press revealed that there has not been a single inspection of a workplace that employs temporary foreign workers.

McCallum argued that having committed to many more inspections with just a "modest increase in the number of inspectors" and not seeking help from provinces, proves that the government is not taking serious steps to deal with the abuses temporary foreign workers face.

No pathways to permanent residency  

Kenney criticized opposition parties for demanding temporary foreign workers be offered open work permits and permanent residency. "I find this position incoherent because on the one hand they say we should radically reduce the number of temporary foreign workers because it takes jobs away from Canadians and in the same breath they say they should be allowed to do so permanently."

McCallum argued that if Canadians are not willing to take certain jobs and if temporary foreign workers are willing, then those workers should have access to permanent residency. McCallum said he was disappointed that the changes did not address the issue of permanent residence. 

"There should be a strong emphasis on a pathway to permanent residence," he said, "We need to reinstate ourselves as a nation of citizen immigrants rather than a nation of guest worker immigrants." 

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Miriam Katawazi is a fourth-year journalism and human rights student at Carleton University and rabble's news intern. She has a strong passion for human rights and social justice in Canada and across the world. Her writing focuses on health, labour, education and human rights beats. 

Photo: Miriam Katawazi

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