Canada has taken in increasingly higher numbers of temporary foreign workers.  The growth has been so significant in recent years that the annual intake of temporary foreign workers in Canada now consistently surpasses the number of permanent resident arrivals.

There are widely differing opinions as to whether this is a positive, negative or neutral development.   Setting aside the often inflammatory and populist commentary on this issue, the reality of Canada's economy and labour market means that the country will almost certaintly continue to accept high numbers of temporary foreign workers. 

This is primarily because of the simple fact that there is an immense and growing skills gap in Canada's labour market.  Specifically, employers across the country continue to struggle to find applicants with the right skills to fill job vacancies.  This issue is only likely to become more pronounced in the future.  By some accounts, by 2020, there will be over a million unfilled jobs in Canada as a direct result of needed skills. 

While domestic job retraining programs may partially address the problem, this at best presents a partial solution to what is a large and chronic national issue.    Given this, Canada faces two options: (1) to significantly increase the annual intake of permanent residents from  approximately 250,000 to at least 400,000 or (2) to maintain or grow the number of temporary foreign workers granted access to Canada each year.  Given current public opinion, it is much more likely that Canada will choose temporary workers over a significant increase in the intake of permanent residents. 

Coming changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program

At the same time that the number of temporary foreign workers in Canada has increased, so has criticism aimed at the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (the “TFWP”) – the set of rules and regulations governing the employment of temporary workers. 

The Federal Government has been the target of a sustained campaign of harsh criticism for its management of the TFWP.  Specifically, prominent labour groups across Canada charge that the program has acted as a drag on local labour standards, depressing local wages and reducing the number of work opportunities available to Canadians.  The criticism is forcing a national conversation about a program that has to date received astonishingly little attention.

The Federal Government has responded to the criticism through a set of proposed changes to the TFWP, presented as part of the 2013 Federal Budget.  These include the following initiatives:  

  • The Federal Government will work with employers to ensure that temporary foreign workers are relied upon only when Canadians genuinely cannot fill those jobs
  • Employers will be expected to make greater efforts to hire Canadians before they will be eligible to hire temporary foreign workers
  • The Federal Government will actively assist employers who rely heavily on temporary foreign workers to find local employees
  • The Federal Government will amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and Regulations to restrict non English or French job language requirements
  • The Federal Government will introduce user fees for ministerial reviews of whether a foreigner should be allowed into Canada on a temporary basis  

What does this mean for employers?

The TFWP is still a largely positive program, providing employers with tools to secure skills needed from abroad which cannot be found locally.  The recent high profile criticism of the TFWP and the government’s response is important however because it serves as a warning to employers that they will be expected to adhere to what are likely to become increasingly strict rules and regulations surrounding the hiring of foreign workers on a temporary basis. 

Employers would accordingly be wise to treat the hiring of foreigners with the same importance as any other human resource matter, including through advanced planning and organized execution.  Such an approach can help to ensure that employers are in the best position to take advantage of the TFWP while avoiding potential associated liabilities.