Disingenuous would be the nicest thing you could say about the prime minister’s recent remarks on the temporary foreign worker program (TFWP) — a program his government injected with extreme and regular doses of steroids.
The Harper government has been repeatedly warned about the many perils associated with its rapid expansion of the controversial temporary foreign worker program — to little or no avail.
Even former Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney recognized the very serious problems with the program in terms of its impact on the country’s labour market, wages and the economy.
Last year Mr. Carney said: “one doesn’t want an over-reliance on temporary foreign workers for lower-skilled jobs which prevent the wage adjustment mechanism for … making sure Canadians are paid higher wages, but also that the firms improve their productivity.”
The program was supposed to be a last resort for employers dealing with skills shortages and used in a truly temporary fashion to fill high skill gaps until Canadians could be trained for those jobs.
That has not been the case under the current federal Conservative government. Not only has the program been used as a source of cheap labour, it has been riddled with abuses and has undermined the need for real immigration.
The result has been what is fast becoming a permanent underclass of workers who have little to no rights, who are especially vulnerable as their conditions of employment and entry into the country are completely tied to their boss and who are quite hesitant to complain about any problems out of fear of losing their employment and being sent back to their home country. They are ripe for exploitation.
In the last decade, the number of temporary foreign workers has tripled in Canada.
The same is true of Newfoundland and Labrador, where the number has nearly tripled since just 2006. More and more people are coming into the country under the so-called low-skill category.
This flooding of the labour force with temporary foreign workers
in occupations where wages are already low and working conditions are poor enables wage suppression to occur. Employers have no incentive to raise wages or improve working conditions.
The federal government said a year ago it would crack down on the program. That did not occur: it was mostly noise and pretense. In fact, in the first six months of 2013, there was an increase in the number of migrant workers who came to Canada under the TFWP despite the so-called crackdown.
The program is designed to allow exploitation to occur. Not all employers are, of course, guilty of this, but there are those who continue to take advance, to exploit, to make false promises and who use the program to supply permanent labour market needs.
The case of the Canada Border Service Agency investigating a Labrador West business owner for allegedly failing to live up to their TFWP application commitments and where reportedly 26 migrant workers were living in a five-bedroom house is just one of many such stories and certainly not even the worst of what has been occurring.
And yet the federal government is not documenting or tracking the abuses or complaints.
So it was a bit of a surprise (understatement of the year!) to hear the prime minister complain about a program that his government has championed, expanded and ignored concerns about.
During an interview with some Vancouver media earlier this month, the prime minister seemed to be trying to blame the bureaucracy for the rapid expansion of the program, saying the bureaucrats worked to adapt to the needs of companies.
Don’t buy it. The expansion was his government’s doing, not the bureaucracy. Indeed, his government has repeatedly defended the expansion.
Harper then went on to say that there have been numerous abuses of the program, including “outright abuse.”
He noted that companies were importing workers for the sole purpose of paying less than the prevailing wage or companies were importing workers for the purpose of permanently moving jobs offshore.
He said companies were bringing in temporary foreign workers with the intention of “never having them be permanent and moving the whole workforce back to another country.”
I am not sure why the prime minister was so surprised.
He was warned that these very results would occur. He was warned over and over and over again. Indeed, one of the program’s rules, brought in by his government
and recently abandoned, actually allowed employers to pay migrant workers 15 per cent less than the prevailing wage rate.
At this point, it appears as if the prime minister is trying to play both sides off against the middle. While he may sound surprised, the fact remains that actions speak louder than words. And his government’s actions have been to allow the very real problems with the program to continue while knowing their merely cosmetic changes would have little impact.
The prime minister went on to say that companies have used the TFWP in ways that were not in the interest of Canadians. “That kind of abuse cannot go on,” he said.
Well, Mr. Harper, in case you need a reminder: you are the prime minister. It is certainly within your power to make sure the conditions for the abuses to occur are eliminated. Better yet, eliminate the program and start from scratch.
Lana Payne is the Atlantic director for
Unifor. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.
Her column returns Feb. 8.