rabble blogs are the personal pages of some of Canada's most insightful progressive activists and commentators. All opinions belong to the writer; however, writers are expected to adhere to our guidelines. We welcome new bloggers -- contact us for details.

Help wanted: Ontario's temporary foreign workers and the need for answers

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca for as little as $5 per month!

Source: Author’s calculations drawing on data from Citizenship and Immigration C

Temporary foreign workers seem to be top of mind for many this week. In a CBC news article posted, the CFIB claimed that temporary foreign workers have a better work ethic than their Canadian counterparts. And recently, CBC reported that McDonald's has been bringing in temporary foreign workers to fill new vacancies.

At the same time, new research from the Metcalf Foundation points out that migrant worker recruitment is big business -- for-profit companies are making big money matching migrant workers with precarious jobs.

Ontario's labour market has gone through a dramatic change since the turn of the century. The use of temporary foreign workers in the province is no exception.

In 2003, there were about 53,000 temporary foreign workers in Ontario. By 2012, that number had more than doubled to 120,000 -- a dramatic increase from 0.9 per cent of the province's total work force in 2003 to 1.7 per cent in 2012. (Employment and Social Development Canada reports statistics on the number of temporary foreign workers present on December 1 of each year. Many TFWs come to Canada as seasonal agricultural workers and are approved to stay in Canada for no more than 8 months at a time. As a result, the statistics presented underestimate the total number of TFWs present in Canada in any given year.)

The number of temporary foreign workers in Toronto alone more than tripled between 2003 and 2012: rising from 19,000 to 64,000.

This is not just an urban phenomenon: the number of temporary foreign workers working in non-urban areas in Ontario has seen a 50 per cent increase (from 26,000 in 2003 to 39,000 in 2012).

Right about now you may be asking yourself: where are Ontario's temporary foreign workers finding work?

For a variety of reasons it's difficult to paint a comprehensive picture of the type of work being done by temporary foreign workers in a particular region or province, but some trends are worth noting. (Employment and Social Development Canada reports the number of labour market opinions approved each year by region. Citizenship and Immigration Canada reports the number of TFWs in the Country, Province/Territory and urban area on Dec. 1 of each year. But the two are not directly comparable "[b]ecause not all temporary foreign workers (TFWs) require a labour market opinion (LMO) to obtain a work permit." Which means statistics contained in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program – Labour Market Opinion (LMO) Statistics cannot be interpreted as having a direct correlation with data published by CIC.")

The available data reveal that use of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) has increased substantially. If we assume that all seasonal agricultural workers are located in non-urban areas, then the increase in the number of seasonal agricultural workers is primarily responsible for the increase in temporary foreign workers outside of urban areas. They're coming here in bigger numbers than before to work in fields and greenhouses, most often in southern Ontario.

From what we can tell, urban areas have a different story to tell.

Before 2002, the temporary foreign worker program was the domain of seasonal agriculture workers, live-in caregivers, as well as some short-term positions for highly skilled individuals. In 2002, in order to address short-term labour shortages, significant changes to the temporary foreign worker program expanded the type of eligible occupations. The new list included all low-skilled occupations (occupations coded as C and D on the National Occupations Classifications Matrix). Later, the program was expanded to include all occupations in all industries.

We also know that increases in the number of temporary foreign workers in Ontario filled between 8-9 per cent of all net new jobs in Ontario between 2005 and 2008. In 2009, even as Ontario lost more than 160,000 jobs, Toronto area employers brought in 3,000 more temporary foreign workers than the previous year.

Finally, in 2012 -- a year when Ontario saw significantly lower job growth -- Toronto area employers brought in more than 12,000 additional temporary foreign workers -- filling a whopping 25 per cent of the net new jobs created in Ontario that year.

The temporary foreign worker program was created to operate as a complement to Canadian labour, not as a substitute. While the available data may not be definitive, high-profile news stories from across the country (including B.C., Alberta and Ontario) suggest that the opposite is true.

In response to criticism, the federal government has announced new rules, as well as fines and other penalties for employers who abuse the system -- like those who bring in foreign workers under false pretenses or who fire Canadians in order to fill the position with a temporary foreign worker.

Ontario is currently facing persistently high unemployment, relentless long-term unemployment, high rates of involuntary part-time work and high levels of unemployment for new immigrants. Shoring up the temporary foreign worker program to protect against abuse and deter firms from using temporary foreign workers as a replacement for Canadians is a welcome move. Better data could also go a long way to ensuring that employers are not taking advantage of a program meant to act as a complement to Canadian labour, not a substitute.  

Kaylie Tiessen is an economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' Ontario Office (CCPA Ontario). Follow her on Twitter @kaylietiessen.

For more information on Ontario's labour market check out our recent report: Seismic Shift: Ontario's Changing Labour Market.

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.