Temporary foreign workers need more paths to immigration, experts say


As hotel and restaurant owners increasingly turn to temporary foreign workers to fill labor gaps, there are growing calls to give those workers more paths to permanent residency.

“If there are particular occupations where there’s a real need and we’ve become dependent on temporary foreign workers… we should include them in a permanent system,” said Naomi Alboim, a senior policy fellow at Toronto Metropolitan University.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the labor picture for the accommodation and food service industry, the use of temporary foreign workers in the sector has been increasing for years. According to Statistics Canada, their share of the workforce more than doubled from 4.4 per cent in 2010 to 10.9 per cent in 2020.

That share is expected to keep rising as companies struggle to fill tens of thousands of jobs amid record low unemployment, pandemic-accelerated early retirements and workers leaving for other sectors, said Adrienne Foster, vice-president of policy and public affairs for the Hotel Association of Canada.

About 90 per cent of the association’s member employers have increased wages to try and attract more workers domestically, and many have increased benefits, development opportunities and other perks, but they’re still struggling to attract applicants, she said.

“COVID did kind of precipitate a decreased appetite for those types of jobs,” said Foster.

“I think at the end of the day the demographics of the Canadian workforce mean that we have to work internationally,” she said.

Over-reliance on temporary foreign workers

To address these gaps, the federal government rolled out temporary measures in April 2022, allowing employers in the accommodation and food service sector, among other sectors facing labor shortages, to hire up to 30 per cent of their workforce through the Temporary Foreign Worker program for low-wage positions. The temporary measures were extended in March 2023 until the end of October.

But as use of the TFW program is becoming more common, so is criticism of what some call an over-reliance on temporary foreign workers, with concerns about the risks these workers may face.

Temporary foreign worker permits are usually tied to employers who bring them into the country, making workers reluctant to report abuse, said Derek Johnstone, special assistant to the national president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

“It puts the entire onus on the migrant,” said Johnstone, though he said the union had had some success in helping workers demonstrate employer abuse and get open work permits as a result.

Alboim said a dependence on temporary foreign workers can also disincentivize employers from increasing wages and benefits, improving working conditions, and even more automation.

At the same time as the government opens the door to more temporary foreign labour, it’s also streamline up immigration, mainly in higher-skilled sectors, said Alboim, a former Ontario Deputy Minister of Immigration. And because many temporary foreign workers are entering the country for what are considered lower-skilled jobs, they have fewer opportunities to transition to permanent residency, she said.

“We have developed, in my view, a really bifurcated system,” she said. “High-skilled, permanent. Low-skilled, temporary. And I don’t think that’s healthy for the economy, and I don’t think that’s healthy for the country.”

Recent changes to the selection system for economic immigrants include a few more occupations from categories considered lower-skill, which is a good start, she said.

‘We need a real immigration strategy,’ the leader says

The restaurant sector needs to increase hiring of domestic workers and hiring through immigration, while also having the option of temporary foreign workers to fill in gaps or seasonal demand, said Olivier Bourbeau, vice-president of federal affairs with industry group Restaurants Canada.

“We don’t only need temporary foreign workers, we need a real immigration strategy,” he said.

The current system is two-tiered, Bourbeau agreed, saying he’d like to see changes made to create more mobility for temporary workers within companies and in the industry to potentially help them become eligible for permanent residency.

Foster at the Hotels Association is also supportive of more paths to permanent residency for temporary foreign workers in the hospitality sector, such as through the Express Entry program.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now with our immigration system is that it really favors education,” she said. “There’s a huge mismatch between the people who are coming in and the job vacancies that are available.”

Instead of the current patchwork of difficult-to-navigate federal and provincial programs and pilots, the federal economic immigration system should be expanded to include these workers, who are filling ongoing labor market needs, said Alboim.

“If the temporary workers coming in are truly doing temporary work… we need that flexibility in our system,” she said. “But to fill ongoing jobs? I think it’s unconscionable.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 16, 2023.

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