The worrying expansion of Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program

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According Statistics CanadaThere were 111,000 temporary foreign workers (TFW) in Canada in 2000. In 2021, this figure had skyrocketed to 777,000.

In 2019, TFWs represented four percent of all T4 earning workers – nearly 1 in 20.

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The federal government’s line is that foreign workers are needed to fill significant labor shortages in critical industries. An increase of this magnitude cannot be justified on these grounds.

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From 2010 to 2019, TFW became more and more concentrated in three low-wage sectors: accommodation and food services, retail trade and “administrative and support services, waste management and remediation”. While these are good jobs, they are low-paying positions that are not related to critical infrastructure like power grids, transportation, or healthcare. In fact, the proportion of TFWs working in agriculture, health care and social assistance, educational services, and construction decreased from 2010 to 2019.

An increasing proportion of TFWs work at fast food counters and hotel lobbies.

Perhaps the best-known example of this is our national coffee icon, Tim Hortons, which has been at the center of a number of controversies surrounding its extensive use of the TWF program. More recently, DP Murphy Inc, which operates Tim Hortons restaurants in Prince Edward Island, found itself in trouble when it bought an apartment building in the small coastal town of Souris, and quickly evicted the tenants to make way for the TFWs.

Tim Hortons has also been the subject of complaints about TFW working conditions, such as the case in 2012 when Mexican workers at Tim Hortons in northern British Columbia had to pay rent twice a month for bunk beds in the crowded rooms of the houses owned by the franchisee.

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A insightful Maclean’s A 2014 article argues that Tim Hortons relies on TFW imports to shore up a common restaurant chain strategy: making up for poor sales numbers by continually opening more and more stores. In one quarter in 2014, Tim Hortons’ same-store sales grew just 1.6 percent, but the company posted overall sales growth of five percent because it opened more than 160 new stores over the previous year!

Companies pursuing this strategy of endless expansion, or simply seeking cheap labor, are helped by an under-reported stream of TFW: the International Mobility Program (IMP). The government website announces the IMP succinctly: “Hiring a worker without a Labor Market Impact Assessment (LMIA).” While for the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), employers must at least follow the procedures to attempt to hire a Canadian, the IMP temporary worker stream avoids this requirement entirely.

IMP work permits have doubled since 2017 to more than 470,000 last year, which does not include the 200,000 international students who hold IMP permits. This program contributes greatly to the astronomical growth in the number of temporary foreign workers and the shift in the proportion of foreign workers towards jobs in food, accommodation, retail and administrative support.

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Immigration Minister Marc Miller has stated that he is willing to “control” the number of temporary foreign workers in 2024. Miller’s reforms should be guided by two goals: reducing the number of TFWs and moving the proportion away from the service sector.

Allowing the number of TFWs to rise to a staggering 777,000 has contributed to Canada’s growing housing crisis; That is simply the law of supply and demand. Imposing a cap of 50,000 or less would significantly reduce pressure on housing.

Allowing Tim Hortons or Days Inn to staff their workforce with foreign nationals is enabling the unhealthy corporate strategy of endless franchise expansion and contributing to wage stagnation in the service sector.

The simplest way to reverse this trend would be to abolish the International Mobility Program (IMP) and strengthen the Labor Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) across the board.

If ending Canada’s addiction to cheap overseas labor means a few fewer Timmies, is that a price to pay?

Riley Donovan is a BC journalist and founder of the publication, where you can find more of his work.

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