The federal government is not backing down from its April 1 deadline that would see a mass exodus of thousands of low-skilled temporary foreign workers.
The move comes despite urgent pleas from Canadian employers who haven’t been able to find new staff.
A change made to the federal Temporary Foreign Worker Program in 2011 limited the amount of time low-skilled workers would be allowed to stay in Canada to four years. Once that term limit expired, those workers would have to return to their home countries for a minimum of four years before being allowed back into Canada to work.
At the time, the government said the changes were designed to give priority to unemployed Canadians while maintaining the temporary nature of the controversial labour program. The federal Conservatives and several government departments continue to maintain this position.
“The Temporary Foreign Worker Program is intended to be a program of last and limited resort when employers are facing short-term skills and labour shortages, and only when qualified Canadians are not available,” a spokesperson from Employment and Social Development Canada said in an email, adding the agriculture industry had ample time to prepare for the approaching deadline.
“Workers and employers have known that the four-year cumulative duration limit was coming for the past four years. It was put in place in 2011 to encourage workers and their employers to use appropriate pathways to permanent residence rather than using work permits to remain in Canada indefinitely,” the email reads.
However, transitioning low-skilled temporary foreign workers into permanent residents is easier said than done.
Canada’s current immigration and bridging programs heavily favour high-skilled workers. Multiple programs, such as the federal Express Entry, Canada Federal Skilled Trades Program and the Skilled Worker Program and most provincial nominee programs , bridge only skilled temporary foreign workers into permanent residents.
There is no federal program to bridge low-skilled workers, those who work as general labourers and harvesters, and who fall under the National Occupation Classification codes C and D. Skilled workers fall under codes O, A and B.
When asked specifically about the available avenues for low-skilled workers in codes C and D who are looking to become permanent residents, a spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada replied with a list of federal programs the workers in question clearly do not qualify for.
When pressed on the issue, the department then said provincial nominee programs were available to low-skilled workers if they do not qualify for federal programs.
Most provincial nominee programs, including Ontario’s, do not accept applications from low-skilled workers, a point Citizenship and Immigration failed to recognize.
Only Alberta’s provincial nominee program clearly outlines that low-skilled workers can apply, although immigration lawyer Richard Kurland said British Columbia and the Maritimes have, in the past, accepted applications from low-skilled workers.
The federal government has granted an exemption for 1,000 low-skilled workers in Alberta who are currently enrolled in the province’s provincial nominee program, which has been overwhelmed with applications.
Alberta has not said which of the thousands of workers seeking permanent residency will be granted an extension.
A similar exemption is reportedly in the works for Saskatchewan, agriculture minister Gerry Ritz told delegates at the Canadian Federation of Agriculture meeting in Ottawa at the end of February. However, it remains unclear whether that agreement has been finalized.
Canada’s agriculture industry has said the pending exodus will be devastating if the April 1 deadline is not repealed. Mushrooms Canada says the hit to the mushroom industry is an estimated $300 million. Canada’s mushroom industry is valued at $900 million.
The country’s red meat industry has said there are currently more than 1,000 open positions in meat packing and processing plants, of which more than 530 are located in Alberta. The industry says that shortage will only be compounded if the April 1 deadline is enforced.