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Editorial: Damning report

Published on May 18, 2017

Sometimes, the critics are right.

For years, people have suggested that Canada’s temporary foreign worker program could be having impacts that were never intended: lowering wages and restricting work for Canadians, while providing employers with cheap foreign labour that eventually would become an integral part of company business plans.

Now Canada’s auditor general has issued a report saying a lot of those concerns are legitimate, and, on top of that, that the program is hampered by limited enforcement and incomplete review of employers.

The AG also found that federal officials 'approved applications from employers of fish and seafood processing plants even when it was aware that unemployed Canadians who last worked in a fish and seafood processing plant may have been available for work.’

Temporary foreign workers, or TFWs, can be hired when there aren’t enough Canadians to fill food service, fish processing and other jobs. But that’s not always how it works out.

“We found that program officers generally accepted statements from employers about the results of their efforts to hire or train Canadians,” the report says. “In cases where, in our opinion, the information provided by employers warranted further questioning, we found that program officers did not sufficiently question employers in 40 per cent of the cases. The information provided by these employers suggested to us that they had not made reasonable efforts to hire or train Canadians.”

The AG also found that federal officials “approved applications from employers of fish and seafood processing plants even when it was aware that unemployed Canadians who last worked in a fish and seafood processing plant may have been available for work.”

In some instances, the report questioned whether TFWs were just a simple solution to a different problem: not a lack of workers, but a lack of proper working conditions.

“In addition, some employers of fish and seafood processing plants told the department that temporary foreign workers were required because some Canadians had quit their positions because of the conditions or difficulty of the work. In our opinion, this type of situation appeared to be a retention problem and not a labour shortage problem.”

Then there’s the fact that foreign workers were being kept on while Canadians were laid off.

“We reviewed a sample that included 34 applications from employers of fish and seafood processing plants. … We examined almost 500 records of employment issued by (three) plants over a three-year period and found that just over 80 per cent of the Canadians they laid off had claimed EI at the same time as the plants were employing temporary foreign workers.”

Employers complain that Canadians want layoffs once they qualify for EI, and that, if the employers don’t comply, workers quit. That’s troubling in the extreme.

The most glaring issue, though, is what no one has bothered to find out.

“Finally, we found that the department did not know whether the program was having unintended consequences, such as suppressing wages, allowing businesses to rely on foreign workers instead of hiring Canadians, or discouraging capital investment and innovation.”

And if you can’t answer such basic questions as that, there’s a big problem.