It doesn’t happen often, but the Harper government just blinked. It wasn’t a total capitulation, not even close. Indeed, the changes announced last week to the temporary foreign worker program were just slightly more than cosmetic.
But for a prime minister and government not known for sober second thought, it was pretty significant.
Last year’s omnibus budget bill included provisions that allowed employers to pay temporary foreign workers 15 per cent less than prevailing wage rates as well as an accelerated labour market opinion (ALMO) process.
The ALMO process allowed employers to bring in temporary foreign workers without having to prove they actually searched local labour markets first for the required skills. Both were eliminated last week.
The Harper government has come under intense fire from labour and migrant workers’ groups, some economists and, most recently, Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney for its expanded and exploitative temporary foreign worker program.
Mr. Carney warned against employers developing an “overreliance” on the program to fill low-paying jobs.
The program was originally designed to fill “temporary” labour or skills shortages in mostly high-skilled areas.
But even there we are seeing employers who avail of cheaper temporary labour rather than trained and skilled Canadian workers. This was the case with respect to RBC and is also the case for pilots in Canada’s airline industry. Last week, an association representing engineers complained that the program was a problem in their profession too.
Today, temporary-foreign workers are employed in every sector of the economy. Mr. Carney echoed what many, including the labour movement, have been warning, that the expanded program suppressed wages for all workers and allowed employers to coast as there was no incentive for them to improve productivity or training.
Mr. Carney said the answer to lower-skilled worker shortages was better pay for workers.
“One doesn’t want an overreliance on temporary foreign workers for lower-skilled jobs,” he said. “It is important over a reasonable time period to ensure that the market adjusts, and then there will be productivity and other adjustments that ensure that Canadians are paid more and that we are a more productive economy as a whole.”
The soon-to-be-former governor of the Bank of Canada said the government must also guard against abuse in the program, preventing a downward pressure on wages.
Miles Corak, a professor of economics with the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, noted in a Globe and Mail column that “flooding the market with workers from elsewhere, year in and year out — even during a major recession — is not about an acute labour shortage. It is nothing more than a wage subsidy to low-paying firms.”
The program, which Professor Corak said should be scrapped, “will continue to displace Canadian workers silently if not directly, despite government assurances, for the simple reason that it artificially keeps wages low, and spoils the magic of the market.”
The other very important problem with the program is it is beginning to replace immigration, not to mention feeding into the creation of an even more precarious job market where everyone feels insecure or vulnerable.
Certainly robust immigration, rather than unfettered employer-friendly, temporary-work permit schemes, makes more sense, especially given Canada’s demographic challenges. We need more citizens, not temporary workers.
This should be a discussion that involves reason, evidence and facts. Except these things are pretty lost on the Harper government.
It is why they are in so deep on the monster they created. They ignored everything that contradicted what they wanted to hear and do.
Allan Gregg, a former Tory adviser, pollster and political commentator, in a keynote address to the Alberta Federation of Labour’s convention last week, expanded on his recent work highlighting what he calls an “assault on reason” by the current federal government.
“Our government's use of evidence and facts as the basis of policy is declining, and in their place, dogma, whim and political expediency are on the rise.
Even more troubling, especially from the perspective of a public opinion researcher, is that Canadians seem to be, if not buying it, certainly accepting it,” he noted.
But perhaps there is hope, as long as people like Mr. Gregg use their powerful voices to highlight how this approach to public policy decision-making seriously weakens our democracy, erodes what is in the best interests of the public good and turns everything in a political stratagem.
What we need are more and more people like Mr. Gregg raising the level of debate in our country. Democracy will be better for it.
And in the end, reason may prevail.
Lana Payne is president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour.
She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Her column returns May 18.