Labour advocates and immigration agencies have warned for years about deep flaws in Canada’s rapidly growing migrant labour program. Employers enjoyed wide leeway to tap desperate pools of foreign labour to fill Canadian jobs, paying below-market wages and accessing a more vulnerable, compliant workforce.

The resulting surge of guest workers (who must leave Canada when their jobs end) gobbled up a substantial portion of the few new jobs being created in Canada’s labour market. In fact, over one in five net new jobs created in the entire economy from 2007 through 2012 went to one of these temporary foreign workers. And employers, not surprisingly, wanted more; so Ottawa expanded the program with new measures (buried deep in last year’s omnibus budget bill) making it even easier and cheaper to bring in lower-priced foreign help. Indeed, the program spawned a new and odious cottage industry of migrant brokers: middlemen with a vested interest in promoting temporary foreigners instead of Canadians.

The whole program was justified as helping to meet “skills shortages,” but this spin was self-evidently exaggerated from the beginning. Canadians are the best-trained workers in the industrial world, and 1.4 million of them are officially unemployed. Throw in discouraged workers, involuntary part-time workers, and those whose current jobs underutilize their training, and it’s clear that the so-called skills crisis is a self-serving myth. Even in limited cases where specific qualifications are genuinely hard to find, this is mostly the fault of employers themselves — for underinvesting in training, recruitment, and retention. A growing number of economists have roundly critiqued the program for inhibiting labour market adjustment, rather than facilitating it: by reducing the incentive for employers to train Canadians, and suppressing the wage adjustments that would be a normal response to any true “shortage.”

All these facts and figures were less influential to the public discourse, however, than revelations that RBC (and other large, rich employers) were accessing the program (either directly or through contractors) to displace Canadian workers — at a time when our labour market is still mired in post-recession funk. The Conservative government feigned outrage over so-called “abuses” of the program, and promised changes. But in fact, the program was not being abused at all: this is exactly what it was designed for, and everything RBC and the others did was fully legal. Hence the public’s ire was correctly shifting to Ottawa (in addition to big business).

So the Harper government is now moving to avert a political disaster in the making. Advance coverage in the Globe and Mail indicates its proposed changes will include a new fee for temporary foreign worker permits, and requirements that employers promise to step up their advertising and training to eventually recruit Canadians for the jobs.

But those promises won’t be worth the paper they are printed on. Federal bureaucrats have no concrete basis on which to judge whether training or recruitment promises are realistic or not, let alone have power to meaningfully enforce them. So long as access to migrant labour remains open, companies can always come back complaining about “shortages.” Even today, the so-called Labour Market Opinions which must be issued before employers can tap the program are no more than a symbolic ritual; approving employers’ “training plans” will be just another rubber stamp.

If we really want employers to find qualified Canadians instead of importing cheap replacements, the whole loophole must be closed down. The low-skill window currently allowed under the program should be cancelled completely (along with the provision allowing employers to pay 15 per cent less than going wages). There is absolutely no legitimate reason unemployed Canadians can’t be tapped to fill every one of those jobs: from coal mines to factories to hotels to donut shops. Employers in these industries tap the program only as a handy source of cheap, compliant labour. This whole section of the program gives the lie to the claim that we need migrant workers for their “skills” in the first place.

For genuine, specialized high-skill vacancies, the guest worker program must only be used as a temporary stop-gap, with hard caps on both numbers and length. Specialists should be allowed in for six months only, with a maximum of one renewal. That gives employers ample time to recruit Canadians — so long as they are willing to pay them. Employers who use the program for skilled-trades positions must set up their own apprenticeship programs to meet future needs.

Every migrant should be entitled to normal employment rights (including access to EI and CPP benefits), as well as having access to normal immigration opportunities. After all, if their skill truly cannot be replaced from within Canada, then they should be invited to live and work here like the rest of us, with full legal protections (instead of being fenced off in low-wage, unpoliced job ghettos).

Finally, full transparency should be required — regularly publishing which employers hire temporary foreign workers, in which jobs, and for how long. Apart from providing unemployed Canadians with a valuable source of information on job opportunities, this sunshine would help ensure that companies use the program for true skills shortages only.

Early indications are that the “sweeping changes” promised by the Harper government to this whole boondoggle will accomplish none of these goals. Instead, it seems that the government’s true priority is managing the fallout from a program which it rammed through Parliament last year — and which employers have merely been accessing in exactly the way it was intended.

Jim Stanford is an Economist with the Canadian Auto Workers Union. A version of this commentary was originally published in the Globe and Mail.

Photo: Caelie_Frampton/Flickr

Jim Stanford

Jim Stanford is economist and director of the Centre for Future Work, and divides his time between Vancouver and Sydney. He has a PhD in economics from the New School for Social Research in New York,...