Temporary foreign worker controversy rooted in job snobbery

There’s another controversy brewing in Ottawa. 


No, it doesn’t involve the Senate, and, no, it has nothing to do with the pending Fair Elections Act. 


The latest fire storm headed the federal government’s way is linked to the controversial Temporary Foreign Workers Program.


While federal employment minister Jason Kenney may have imposed a temporary, albeit sudden, moratorium on the use of the program in the food service sector, accusations of abuse continue.


Retail giants McDonald’s and Tim Hortons are both facing heightened scrutiny after multiple accusations of program misuse in Western Canada. 


Another handful of independent employers, including a restaurant in Weyburn, Sask., are under fire for favouring cheap, foreign workers over Canadian employees. 


The news has triggered major public outrage with the tag line “they should have hired Canadians.”


Amidst the controversy, though, lurks a serious conversation Canadians have ignored for far too long. 


We’re job snobs.


The Temporary Foreign Worker Program was never supposed to be used to fill so called menial service positions. It was created as a survival tool for industries unable to find skilled workers and prevent severe spikes in labour costs. 


For rural communities, the program had the added benefit of opening up a skilled labour pool willing to work in remote regions, away from major city centres. 


This was especially true in Western Canada where labour shortages have plagued parts of the region for years and finding skilled workers can sometimes be next to impossible. 


The program flourished. By 2012, according to a recent C.D. Howe study (a respected non-partisan think-tank), Canada was home to some 338,000 temporary foreign workers employed by hundreds of companies nationwide. 


Yet, unemployment numbers in Canada remained static, hovering around 7.2 percent. In some provinces (notably Alberta and British Columbia) the report found joblessness actually increased. 


While some argue the logical explanation, and the one suggested by the report, is employer preference for foreign workers at the expense of Canadian employees, other factors are also at play. 


We Canadians are picky about where we work and for whom we work. 


Right or wrong, we snub our noses at the “tedious” service industry jobs. Many of us believe that driving cabs, working at McDonald’s or pouring coffee doesn’t help us get ahead.


Those jobs don’t boost our resumes and fail to provide any measurable experience that distinguishes us from everyone else in today’s competitive job market.


We’re choosy and most employers are too. 


Minister Kenney and department staff have insisted repeatedly Canadian workers must be considered first. That’s all well and good, and in the political game, it’s the only comment they can make. 


But, for that to work, Canadians must actually be interested in the jobs. 


In Western Canada especially, employers are often competing against the affluent, roll-in-the-dough wages of the oil industry. 


Non-oil industry jobs can start as high as $22 per hour with full benefits. Yet, employers still can’t find Canadians willing to take the jobs. 


Consider the meat packing industry. A staple employer in rural communities across the Prairies, the industry is heavily dependent on temporary foreign workers. 


Along with major competition from the natural resources sector, working in a meat plant is physically demanding. Nor is it the most pleasant kind of work.


A lot of Canadians, particularly city slickers like myself, are simply not physically fit enough to do the work, or are afflicted with weak stomachs.


Add in the rural challenge of convincing someone to move away from the city and the struggles can be enormous. 


As the outcry over the Temporary Foreign Worker Program grows, calls for the program’s end are guaranteed to surface. 


The federal Liberals and the NDP have raised concerns about the program. The NDP wants a complete federal review, while Liberal MP John McCallum has written the auditor general asking for an in-depth investigation into the program.


It’s easy to lament, “They should have hired a Canadian.”


The question we should really be asking ourselves, though, is this: Would a Canadian have been willing to do the job?

Kelsey Johnson is a reporter with iPolitics, www.ipolitics.ca.

  • Arch McNab

    While I appreciate that as the author notes, some city slickers may lack the strong back and strong stomachs required to work in the meat packing industry I would far sooner we rely upon the marketplace to decide what the fair wage should be for all jobs based upon Economics 101. See Chapter 1 (Supply and Demand). If your stomach isn’t strong enough to withstand seeing entrails on a daily basis for $11/hr, I am sure it would toughen up if that rate was $100/hr. See how fast things changed.
    The oil companies had no choice in attracting workers to the frozen tundra and were forced to pay top dollar and more to get people to go there. If Tim Horton’s in Fort Mac has to pay 22 bucks an hour or 33 bucks an hour to get workers, that’s the reality they have to face. And yes maybe a cup of coffee would be five dollars then. The marketplace will decide.
    We do ourselves no favours by altering the rules of the game to make it easier for some players than others. If there is profit to be made, business will go there, its the same for the workers.
    At some point it has to be just as attractive to be a rig worker as it is to be a school teacher or a coffee slinger or a lawyer. Too many or too few will always cause adjustments, get used to it.