It was the worst imaginable way to jolt Canadians toward noticing that low-wage foreign workers are an increasingly important segment of the country’s labour force. Ten workers, nine from Peru and one from Nicaragua, recruited to fill jobs vaccinating chickens, were killed, and three others badly injured, when their van ran a stop sign and collided with a truck at a rural crossroads in southwestern Ontario. The truck driver, a Canadian, also died in the crash early this month. The accident thrust the reality of who works at the lowest tiers of farming and some other sectors briefly into the news. But even with that burst of attention, the swelling statistics on migrants remain little discussed. When Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won power in 2006, 255,440 foreign temporary workers lived in Canada. By 2010, their ranks had expanded to 432,682.
They are an increasingly diverse group. A changing mix of migrant occupations signals a shift in the way employers rely on foreigners to do jobs Canadians won’t. York University immigration expert Alan Simmons says the rapid growth has come outside traditional farm and domestic work, in industries like meat-packing, warehousing and hotels. Temporary workers now greatly outnumber newcomers accepted for good. From 2006 to 2010, the number of foreigners living in Canada as permanent residents on their way to citizenship increased only 12 per cent, from 251,642 to 280,681, during a five-year span when the foreign temporary-worker population ballooned by nearly 70 per cent.
The two groups enter Canada under starkly contrasting terms. Those admitted as permanent residents are joining family members who are already citizens, or have been selected under a federal points system that values education and a good grasp of English or French, or are refugees. Those allowed in temporarily are accepted only because their employers applied to the federal government to recruit abroad to fill vacancies they couldn’t interest Canadians in at the prevailing wage.
The fast growth of this temporary class fits with broader federal policy. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney have signalled they want to more closely match permanent immigrants, too, to immediate job openings. That could mean fewer with advanced degrees, more with in-demand practical skills. Some provinces have already taken on a bigger role in carefully picking immigrants to meet employer demands. Temporary workers have always needed a clear job offer before being allowed in. And Kenney firmed up regulations last year to make sure those offers are genuine. As well, he put a four-year limit on how long temporary workers can stay. Last fall, Kenney and Human Resources Minister Diane Finley met with business leaders, along with labour representatives, in Calgary to discuss making the policy even more “responsive to labour market needs,” although no further policy changes have so far been announced.
A minority of these temporary workers are given the chance to become permanent immigrants. Domestic workers—often live-in caregivers from the Philippines—typically come on short-term visas, but are allowed to apply to immigrate after two years here. Some high-skilled foreign workers can also hope to make the leap from temporary to permanent, but most are offered little or no chance to stay.
Among the provinces, only Manitoba has passed comprehensive legislation to protect foreign temporary workers. “We had identified a pattern that I think others across the country also saw,” says Ben Rempel, assistant deputy minister in the province’s Ministry of Labour and Immigration, “of frequent abuse of foreign temporary workers, most often by unregulated recruitment activity, sometimes by employers who didn’t honour the terms of contracts offered.” Manitoba’s 2009 law requires companies bringing in foreign workers to register with the province. Recruiters must also be licensed. Fines for violations of rules on, for instance, pay and working conditions can be high, up to $25,000 for an individual and $50,000 for a corporation.
Rempel says other provinces are now looking closely at Manitoba’s model. International experience is also well worth examining. Other rich countries have long struggled with how to treat large numbers of foreign workers who live in their midst for many years without qualifying for citizenship, including Turks in Germany and Latin Americans in the U.S. In Canada, the issue may only now be emerging on a large scale. Simmons says it poses two urgent policy questions: “Who’s monitoring the safety and well-being of these workers? Who’s looking at what rules should allow people who really invest in the building of this country to convert to permanent residents?” The answers Ottawa and the provinces arrive at could determine if more foreign workers represent a mutually advantageous economic solution, or a dawning social problem.