A new study by the Labourers' International Union of North America (LIUNA) shows that efforts to improve the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) may actually instead be shifting employers to use another program to avoid hiring local labour.
Mark Olsen, manager for LIUNA Western Canada, said the issue dates back to 2014 when the TFWP and the International Mobility Program (IMP) existed together before being separated by the Harper government. Olsen said the separation resulted in artificially low TFWP numbers.
And as the TFWP changed, many migrated to the IMP which doesn't require a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) process. A positive LMIA shows there is a need for a foreign worker to fill a job. It will also show that no Canadian worker is available to do the job.
"It was really Harper doing a two-step on making it appear the government was doing something," claimed Olsen.
LIUNA's new policy brief entitled, International Mobility Program: Recommendations for Change, found migrant workers entering Canada under the IMP expanded from 83,553 in 2006 to 259,399 in 2015. The IMP accounted for 80 per cent of the total migrant workforce in 2015.
Migrant workers coming to Canada under the TFWP rose rapidly to a peak of 112,563 in 2009. The number declined to 81,559 in 2011, rebounded to 104,125 in 2013 and fell to 60,138 in 2015.
"The simultaneous reform of the TFWP and rapid expansion of the IMP provides the most significant reason for the federal government to undertake a full inquiry into the impact of Canada's migrant worker programs on the construction labour force," said Olsen. "This policy allowed the Conservatives to avoid public criticism and anger about the TFWP, while preserving the exploitive and abusive nature of the migrant worker regime in Canada."
Olsen said LIUNA is asking the federal government to conduct a cross-Canada study of both programs and to also review its international agreements, focusing on their impact on the construction industry.
Olsen's concerns stem, in part, from a previous government committee review of the TFWP released in the fall of 2016, which gave 21 recommendations, including changes to the program to make it easier to import temporary foreign workers. Olsen explained while some of the report's recommendations were good, the construction industry was completely left out.
He said changes need to be made and enforced. For example, Olsen noted some companies appear to pay workers a competitive wage, but undercut this by subtracting expenses like gas, transportation and housing to drive the wage down.
"Companies need to honestly say what they are going to pay, and then government needs to enforce that," he said.
Olsen is also eager for the government to review international agreements and fears the Liberals are poised to make deals with China for oilsands work without protecting Canadian jobs.
However, he maintains he is still optimistic. He believes the Liberal government will work with the industry to investigate and reform the programs.
"It is the Achilles heel," said Olsen. "The PCs will no doubt use the issue in an election if more jobs go to foreign workers. There could be a Trump-like backlash against the federal Liberals. There are 50,000 oilsands workers still out of work due to the slow down. There should be no TFW in the oilfields."
He added keeping jobs local also opens up opportunities to fulfill commitments to train and hire aboriginal workers.
"The way things are going now there is a loss of Canadian jobs, a depression of the labour market in wages and benefits and clear exploitation of TFWs," said Olsen. "That is the current state of things and we need these changes made."