Temporary Foreign Workers in Canada

May 06, 2013

Amid all the debate over temporary foreign workers in Canada, Immigration  Minister Jason Kenney is putting some of the blame for the lack of apprentices  in the resource industry on the companies and provincial governments.

It is contributing to what Kenney calls the “bizarre paradox of Canadians  without jobs and jobs without workers” that’s being debated in Parliament and in  the media across the country at a time when there are a record number of  so-called TFWs in Canada.

There are now more than 338,000 temporary foreign workers across Canada as  the NDP and Liberals accuse the Conservatives mismanaging the program that dates  to 1973. Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed concern about the growth  in the number of TFWs and his government is reviewing the program.

With youth unemployment at 14 per cent and funding cuts to post-secondary  education, the criticism is foreigners are taking jobs from Canadians.

“We are monitoring it very closely,” Kenney said. “If it’s being abused and  displacing Canadian workers we will shut it down.”

The debate has largely been over increases in the number of low-skilled  workers in the food service and hospitality industries but the program covers  people from domestic and agricultural workers to surgeons. There have also been  increases in highly skilled tradespeople in the booming mining and oil and gas  industries.

Canada has more TFWs than its 250,000 new immigrants each year and Alberta  draws more than any province. The number of TFWs in Alberta climbed from 9,439  in 2000 to 57,774 in 2010, according to provincial statistics, after Ottawa  overhauled the program in 2006.

In a wide-ranging discussion about immigration reform with the Herald’s  editorial board Friday, Kenney noted one of the reasons for the increase has  been a decline in support for apprentices in skilled trades over the past 20  years.

He said it started with the provincial education bureaucracies deciding to  “mothball” vocational high schools and culminated with companies so focused on  worker productivity and bottom-line profits there is limited focus on  development of the next generation of skilled workers.

“Canadian employers have not been investing enough in apprenticeships,”  Kenney said.

“I’m aware of situations where some major Canadian extractive (resource)  companies have it written into their construction contracts a proviso there be  no apprentices on the work site.

“They want full productivity, fully ticketed journeymen because they don’t  want to be ‘wasting’ time on apprentices.”

First-and second-year apprentices are often seen as negative to the bottom  line.

The irony in Kenney’s example is that oilsands is the largest employer of  skilled trades workers in Canada.

The oil and gas industry has repeatedly complained over the lack of skilled  trades-people since the mid-1990s when the boom that has seen $170 billion  invested in the oilsands began.

The need is evident.

The Alberta government estimates there will be 114,000 more jobs than people  in the province in the next 10 years. Last June, the Canadian Association of  Petroleum Producers and Canada’s Building Trades Unions signed an agreement to  promote careers in skilled trades and work with governments to improve workforce  availability.

Kenney’s assessment is hardly a surprise to organized labour. The Canadian  Apprenticeship Forum has said only 50 per cent of companies that employ  tradespeople have employees in four-year apprenticeship streams.

“It is more than ironic when employers complain about the skills shortage and  at least half of them are doing nothing to train the next generation of skilled  workers,” said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

McGowan blames Ottawa for allowing companies to increase TFWs to resolve  labour challenges rather than take responsibility to develop Canadian workers.  There are reports more than 33,000 companies and organizations have applied for  TFWs as the program has doubled in size in the last six years.

“The federal government is making it much worse by making it much easier to  get journeymen through the temporary foreign worker program,” McGowan said.

Alberta has a higher percentage apprentices in the workforce than any other  province but its booming industries provide more opportunities.

“We don’t want the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to offset the development  of a robust domestic supply of labour in the skilled trades,” Kenney said.

“We are doing everything we can to gin that up. But in the meantime, if an  employer has announced a $5-billion project in northern Alberta and they’ve got  shareholders and financiers and investors breathing down their necks to meet  timelines as labour costs continue to rise are we going to say to them, ‘Sorry,  too bad so sad. You’re going to have to kill the project because they can’t find  tradesmen.’ That’s not in our economic interest either.”

It’s undoubtedly a balancing act for governments and industry.

Foreign labour is important to Canada’s economy but temporary workers aren’t  a long-term solution to labour challenges. Ottawa has made it clear that  oilsands investment should provide a net benefit to Canada and one way to help  ensure that is to provide long-term highly skilled jobs for a generation of  young Canadians.

Stephen Ewart is a Calgary Herald columnist sewart@calgaryherald.com