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Labour + Industry

Increase in Foreign Workers Through Federal Program Still a Problem, Says Union

New report finds use of International Mobility Program has ballooned in recent years.

Jeremy Nuttall 27 Jul

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee’s reader-funder Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

A program that brings foreign workers to Canada has ballooned in recent years, threatening wages and employment opportunities for Canadian residents, according to a union representing more than 100,000 construction workers in Canada.

Touted as a solution to labour shortages by proponents, Canada’s International Mobility Program (IMP) is similar to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP).

The TFW Program is meant to help employers fill general labour gaps, often in low-skilled positions, while the IMP program is meant to cater to more specialized needs serving “competitive advantages” to Canada.

The Labourers’ International Union of North America’s western Canada manager Mark Olsen said that, like the TFWP before it, the IMP has swelled as employers use it to circumvent the Canadian labour market.

“It pushes down wages and benefits in the construction industry,” Olsen said. “There really has to be a full study on it.”

In a new policy paper, the union details its concerns about the program.

In 2006, about 84,000 foreign workers were brought to Canada via the IMP, and in 2014 the number peaked at 260,000, according to the paper.

Workers from India, the United States and China make up the top three countries of origin, according to StatsCan.

Data shows that 10,000 fewer workers accessed the program in 2015, but in 2016 another 32,000 were added, according to a spokesperson from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

In 2012, the TFWP was plagued by stories of worker abuse and employers paying wages lower than industry standards. At the time, the IMP was a stream within the TFWP.

Under public pressure in 2014, the government of Stephen Harper made changes to the TFWP, including establishing the IMP as a separate entity.

But Olsen said that while use of the TFWP has dropped off, the IMP has grown.

The IMP has fewer requirements for employers to prove that efforts were made to find a Canadian resident to fill a job, he said.

For example, employers accessing the IMP don’t need to apply for a labour market impact assessment, used in part to determine if employers made reasonable efforts to hire a resident.

The paper also says the lack of IMP regulations makes it difficult to know how much employers using the program are paying employees.

Information opaque

According to the IMP’s website, an employer may apply to bring a foreign worker to Canada via the program if it serves “broader economic, cultural or other competitive advantages” for Canada.

Such ambiguous parameters are “unbelievable,” said Olsen.

“The problem with the IMP is there’s no process at all,” he said. “The changes Harper made created an even worse situation.”

Another concern, according to the paper, is employers that treat travel costs of employees and other items as part of wages under the program.

Olsen said some foreign workers are actually being paid less than minimum wage once other costs are factored together.

But knowing for certain what’s going on with the IMP is difficult, according to Olsen.

Just getting data on the program was a challenge because the federal government doesn’t seem to track it properly, he said.

He argues that Ottawa must conduct a study of the IMP to examine its effect on the construction industry.

Last October, Olsen’s union made a similar request for a review of the TFWP and then federal employment minister Mary Ann Mihychuk said she was open to a study.

But in January Mihychuk was removed from her cabinet post and replaced by Patty Hajdu. Olsen hasn’t heard anything about a TFW Program review since.

A spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said the union’s concerns are unfounded.

Lisa Filipps said though there has been an increase of 32,000 workers coming to Canada through the IMP between 2015 and 2016, most of that number represents post-graduate students, spouses of students and high-skilled workers, and working holiday visas.

Filipps said that workers tied directly to employment through the program haven’t seen large increases or decreases in use since 2015.

She added that enforcement of the IMP has been ramping up since 2015, pointing to a list of employers found to have broken regulations.

The list contains eight employers hit with a combined $12,000 in fines. One company received a two-year ban from the program.

Narrowed one door, widened another?

Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan, an NDP candidate in the 2015 federal election, said he has been concerned about the IMP for some time.

Since taking power in 2015 the Liberals have been no better at protecting Canadian jobs than the Conservatives, McGowan said.

“While they were taking very public action to tighten up the rules on the TFWP they were quietly expanding the IMP,” he said.

McGowan also said a parliamentary committee review of the TFWP under former immigration minister John McCallum last year was stacked with employers wanting to see the program expanded.

In March 2016, Ottawa also eased restrictions on the TFWP.

The Liberal actions on the file clearly show a disregard for Canadian residents’ labour needs, McGowan said.

McCallum is now an ambassador to China where, as minister, he opened a number of visa offices.

As Canada holds exploratory talks with China on a free trade deal, Olsen is worried Ottawa will hand Beijing the right to use Chinese workers on projects in Canada.

Such agreements signed by China with other countries have included clauses allowing Chinese companies to import their own labour, including on construction projects.

At a lunch hosted by the Canada China Business Council in Montreal in March, The Tyee asked McCallum, there giving a speech to the council, if Ottawa would commit to protecting Canadian jobs from Chinese companies wanting to import labour.

“We’re not even into free trade talks, we’re into exploratory talks,” McCallum said. “We’re a long way from any discussion of that kind.”  [Tyee]

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