As Canada deals with a potential long-term labor shortage, both the Alberta Federation of Labor (AFL) and Alberta government officials are voicing concerns about the nation’s policies on temp staffing and immigration.
Thomas Lukaszuk, Alberta’s immigration minister, is concerned that the nation’s program to encourage employers to hire foreign workers – called the Temporary Foreign Worker Program – is too focused on helping employers find labor and not enough on fostering actual immigration.
The TFWP has resulted in a 75% jump in temporary foreign workers in Alberta since 2005, the largest increase of any province. Alberta faces labor needs for its hotels and restaurants, construction and oilsands projects and meat packing plants.
“In my opinion it was a program that had fulfilled its mandate, suddenly providing a large number of workers to an economy that suddenly had a massive shortage of workers . . . but it’s not working well now,” Lukaszuk said in hearings last fall.
Gil McGowan, president of the 145,000-worker AFL, couldn’t agree more.
“We have now essentially created an underclass of cheap, exploitable workers in Alberta,” said McGowan.
“We’re abandoning real immigration in favour of using an exploitative guest worker program to fill our most menial and undesirable jobs,” he said. “It’s a shameful transformation and a betrayal of Canadian values and our traditional approach to immigration.”
The TFWP was expanded at the turn of the century to bring in workers for Canada’s employers to fill skill shortages in their labor forces.
In April 2011, the Canadian government gave itself more authority to police the program, including better assessment of employer job offers; a two-year prohibition from hiring TFWs for employers who have failed to meet their commitments to workers with respect to wages, working conditions and occupation; and most importantly, a limit on the length of time a TFW may work in Canada before returning home.
The limit is generally two years, with an option to extend the employment period for an additional two years. After that, the worker must wait four years before reapplying for the program.
At the same time, the number of government-approved employer applications for the program has risen dramatically. A total of 42,885 employers were approved to hire foreign temporary workers in 2010, a 37% increase over the previous year.
The service sector, where the tight labor market should be driving wages up, is of specific concern, according to McGowan. He says that employers are using the program not as a last resort, as was intended, but as a recruitment tool to keep wages artificially low.
The vision for both the province and the labor group is to ease the restrictions on temporary foreign workers and make it easier to gain permanent citizenship through the country’s provincial nominee program. That way, they can bring in their families and assimilate into Canadian society.
However, while Lukaszuk says that Alberta will require at least 77,000 additional workers in the next 10 years, the current cap on the provincial nominee program for Alberta is 5,000 annually.
Canada currently has the highest immigration rates per capita in the world, accepting 254,000 new immigrants per year.
A remaining issue is how the potential influx of foreign immigrants will jibe with the nation’s unemployment overall. Unemployment for younger workers exceeds 25% in some provinces, according to the AFL, and unemployment overall ranges between nine and 12% in some parts of Canada.