The Temporary Foreign Worker Program was in need of fixing. But as recently announced changes trickle through the country, it’s not clear whether the federal government has created new problems in its attempt to fill the holes.
There are many unwitting players in this drama: meat processors and greenhouses to name a couple. Through no fault of their own, they suddenly find it much more difficult to fill their staff requirements.
Yet we are not here to praise the old Temporary Foreign Worker Program. It had many flaws, not least among them its institutionalized racism that divided employees into two separate camps: foreign workers and Canadians, with different rules for each. That has not been addressed in the new regulations.
Yet the programs have served an important function in some areas, particularly in Western Canada, where the labour force has not kept up to need.
As a result, there was a collective sigh of relief across the Prairies when federal employment minister Jason Kenney announced changes last month: agriculture was exempt from the restrictions on how employers can use the program. Feedlot operations also qualified for the exemption.
The program is designed to allow foreign workers to come to Canada temporarily. As of Dec 1, 2012, 338,221 workers were recognized officially as living in Canada under its rules.
The TFWP was originally designed for agricultural and care workers, but streams for low-skilled and high-skilled workers were added later.
The low-skilled stream drew fire this winter with reports of overuse and misuse, which led to complaints that foreign workers were taking jobs from Canadians.
The government rushed in to fill the breach. In doing so, it instituted a sweeping ban that prohibits all food service businesses and retail trade sectors in regions with unemployment of six percent or higher from using the program.
Ottawa also limited the number of foreign workers that an employer could have to 10 percent of its workforce to be phased in over two years, and has raised the fees to make it more expensive and discourage its overuse.
This last change is what is causing difficulties for meat processors.
The Maple Leaf pork plant in Brandon and Hylife in Neepawa, Man., as well as beef plants at Brooks and High River, Alta., rely extensively on foreign workers.
Reduced access to necessary workers could limit plants’ throughput, causing more animals to be exported to the U.S., lessening economic activity in Canada and threatening the viability of Canadian slaughter plants.
Paying higher wages might attract more Canadian citizens to work in the industry but considering the physical demands, what is the real potential? And if Canadian plants paid higher wages, would they be competitive with American plants staffed with low wage immigrants and illegal aliens?
There is also the matter of social justice. We should want to keep people who have shown they want to contribute to our nation. The government should map out rules on how temporary foreign workers can gain permanent resident status, lower financial expectations for prospective immigrants and set out clear assessment strategies for how companies can locate the best employees to fill their empty positions.
And there needs to be defined protections to enable industries to bring in temporary foreign workers, once they have shown that they have no alternatives.
The program is well intentioned, and with a few changes, we can help ensure the baby isn’t thrown out with the bath water.
Bruce Dyck, Terry Fries, Barb Glen and D’Arce McMillan collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.