Political crisis moves politicians.
For the thoughtful, political calamities provide an opportunity to reflect on the root causes that led to that predicament and acting in a manner that can deal with those factors.
For other politicians, political crisis simply triggers a less noble self preservation instinct. The tactics that accompany this approach are typically: to deflect, to misrepresent and/or to duck and cover till things settle down and most importantly -- stay the course.
Earlier this year, it was revealed Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) is out of control with an unprecedented number of work permits being issued to employers like Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) and HD Mining Ltd.
RBC had been given permission to temporarily hire IT workers from abroad. They were being trained by the same staff they would eventually displace via the practice of off-shoring. The HD mining company had received approval for hundreds of temporary work permits, despite abundant evidence of unemployed workers with mining skills readily available within Canada.
In addition, HD Mining appeared to have links to an overseas recruiting firm that claimed fluency in Mandarin was a job requirement to work in northern B.C.
Wages offered to temporary migrant workers via this recruiting firm were dramatically lower than provincial standards. Despite these obvious flaws, the Conservatives' TFWP program approved work permits for both employers.
Public outrage was tremendous -- a very real political crisis was at hand.
The Conservatives reaction was to deflect and misrepresent in order to contain damage -- but ultimately to stay the course.
At the time, a repetitive talking point during these crises was to say their government was committed to Canadians getting "first crack at jobs." No serious reflection has ever taken place as to their role in issuing nearly 340,000 temporary work permits in 2012 -- a tripling in size over the last decade.
Deflection tactics included suggesting that some employers may be abusing the program (ya think?) and rushing to announce a series of cosmetic changes to the program followed by the promotion of a poorly conceived Canada Jobs Grant (CJG) initiative.
The CJG design was to claw back monies previously dedicated to the provinces/territories to help train vulnerable members of the workforce (women, aboriginal and racialized workers) while gifting employers with yet another subsidy for training. However, the ideas is so poorly conceived and bereft of support, it is unlikely to survive.
The tactic of announcing new and cosmetic rules for the TFWP and a dubious training initiative nonetheless served to deflect attention from the super-sized growth of their temporary migration scheme, which now out-paces the number of permanent immigrants we welcome to the economy.
Duck and Cover
Now in hopes the public attention is no longer as focused on the folly of the TFWP, Minister Jason Kenny recently revealed his government is prepared to resurrect the fast track window -- known as the Accelerated Labour Market Opinion initiative (ALMO) -- that allowed employers and labour brokers to apply for temporary work permits more quickly.
It was worth recalling that at the end of April 2013, Kenney had announced he was closing that loophole which his government created the year before. The hope was that such changes, including plans for warranting less search and seizure investigatory powers of employers, would mollify the critics. No matter, that investigation of 340,000 some work permits is well beyond the capacity of a gutted public service.
Now Minister Kenney is floating the idea that their fast track spigot, to serve employers eager to access vulnerable workers, may be soon be re-opened.
Thousands of employers, across Canada from the fast food, construction, landscaping, mining and hotel sectors to name just a few, have successfully used this pipeline to secure temporary work permits.
The ALMO process also had the added bonus of permitting employers to negotiate 15 per cent less in wages for both the migrant worker and their Canadian or permanent resident counterparts in the high skilled job categories and five per cent less for low or semi-skilled jobs.
Back in April, Kenney announced his government was ending the pay less element of the ALMO initiative, arguing that very few employers were using it. He said, "less than five per cent of employers actually used up the flexibility that they were given to pay less than the median average."
Yet in October 2013, Kenney sang a new refrain. Media reports quote him as saying, "we suddenly saw a large and growing number of food service supervisors come in under the exemption to work in fast food outlets in Western Canada."
Misrepresenting the reality of the TFWP is also common sport for this government.
At the height of public outrage over the cases of RBC and HD Mines, Minister Kenney held a press conference claiming his government would put in place new rules to crack down on abuses of the TFWP by employers. Kenney implied these new measures would clamp down on the growth of the program, and allow Canadians to get that "first crack" at available jobs.
Instead the Conservatives have actually allowed a further ramping up of admissions of temporary foreign workers through the first half of this year. According to estimates from Citizenship and Immigration Canada the number of temporary foreign workers admitted from January to June rose nearly five per cent compared to the same period in 2012 and nearly 20 per cent over 2011.
The growth of this program has rested on the persistent, but unproven, claim that labour shortages are rampant and growing across the country. But a 52 page report released, in late October of this year, by the TD Bank’s Deputy Chief economist Derek Burleton and three other bank economists, debunks what its author’s call the myth of widespread skills mismatches in Canada and of a looming labour shortage as the workforce ages.
The authors note whatever skills shortages do exist are isolated and likely no greater than a decade ago.
Deflect and misrepresentation strategies run into trouble when they collide headlong into contradictory studies or the facts. Kenney has consistently tried to suggest that his government program is really filling shortages in high skilled sectors where he doggedly argues there are shortages, despite the findings of the TD Bank.
The Minister has also been adamant his government is not giving employers access to work permits for jobs in the low wage and vulnerable sectors. In April he said, his government granted just "30,000 out of 200,000 work permits for low skilled occupations."
To be blunt, the Minister is dead wrong. Publicly available data reveals that employers were given access to 55,000 work permits for low or semi-skilled jobs. In addition there were another 78,500 temporary work permits granted for occupations not stated, which are likely for lower skilled and vulnerable jobs.
Not only is it troubling that employers are able to secure work permits for unknown jobs, but entries in this odd category of "level not stated" has increased 250 per cent after 2003, and now amounts to the largest single skill level of migrant workers by far, twice as many as the next largest skill level.
Put another way, more than a third (37 per cent) of all migrant workers entering in 2012 were slotted into the 'level not stated' category.
Migrant workers in these occupational categories are often subject to lower wages and higher likelihood of exploitation and abuse. Their vulnerability is linked to their dependence upon their employers to maintain their legal status.
Canadians should carefully consider how politicians handle political crisis. Do they reflect on the root causes carefully, accept their own potential culpability and commit to making fundamental reforms?
Or do they deflect, misrepresent and shamelessly try to stay the course.
Karl is the National Director of the Human Rights/Anti-Racism department with the Canadian Labour Congress.
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