MP David Wilks met with local government leaders last week to explain changes to the federal government’s temporary foreign workers program.
The Kootenay-Columbia MP appeared at the Friday, July 4 board meeting for the Regional District of East Kootenay and answered questions about the local impact of changes to the temporary foreign workers program.
On June 20, Employment Minister Jason Kenney and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander unveiled changes to the controversial temporary foreign worker program.
The changes prevent employers in places with high unemployment rates from applying for temporary foreign workers in the lowest wage and skill groups in the accommodation, food service and retail sectors.
Wilks said that under this requirement, no businesses in the Kootenays are eligible to apply to bring people to Canada under the temporary foreign worker program.
“The unemployment rate (cap) set by Minister Kenney is at six per cent,” said Wilks. “In the Kootenays, the unemployment rate is at 7.2 per cent. As a result of that, they can’t apply for temporary foreign workers because it’s over six per cent.
“The problem with that is that they took the 7.2 per cent in February, which was a low time of the year. They need to take that at a higher time of the year, whether that is July or August. That’s something the federal government and the provinces need to work out.”
A cap is also being placed on the number of low-wage temporary foreign workers an employer can hire at each worksite: 30 per cent of a worksite’s employees starting immediately, dropping to 10 per cent by July 2016.
“This does not impact anyone who has an employee capacity of 10 people or less. They can still carry on as they did under the old program,” said Wilks.
Companies will also be required to re-apply each year to hire low-wage temporary foreign workers, instead of every two years. They’ll pay more for the privilege, too: $1,000 per employee, up from $275.
The government also says it will post the number of temporary foreign workers approved every quarter, along with the names of companies that get the green light to hire them, in an effort to enhance accountability.
Employers who hire temporary foreign workers must promise not to lay off any Canadian workers or cut their hours, and they must tell the government how many Canadians applied and were interviewed for jobs, along with why they were not hired.
The amount of time a low-wage temporary foreign worker can work in Canada is being reduced to a cumulative total of two years from four years.
Mayor Wayne Stetski asked if the changes to the program will affect people who are already in Canada working under the program.
“We’ve had some great additions to Cranbrook through that program in terms of cultural and just really good people,” he said.
But Wilks said the permits have always come with an expiration date.
“On the application it specifically says, ‘you will return to your country of origin upon expiration of the agreement’,” he said. “They know that they are here temporarily. They are not here on a permanent status. If they want to do that, they can apply, and last year, Canada brought in 750,000 new Canadians.”
Invermere Mayor Gerry Taft said that temporary foreign workers make a valuable contribution to the Kootenays.
“Is there going to be a better immigration program specifically that allows working people to be in rural parts of Canada? Because right now most of the immigrants who come to Canada go to the major cities. That was the benefit of the temporary foreign workers program – it actually brought diversity into our area.”
Wilks responded that many foreign workers prefer to be in cities.
“The challenge of course is that when a lot of these people come to Canada, they are more comfortable in the urban areas because there will be a group of that ethnic background there,” he said.
“The challenge is getting them to the rural areas, because to some degree they are displaced because there are not that many of them.”
Taft said that changes to the program will have a profound impact in the Columbia Valley.
“What effectively is going to happen, because employers cannot apply in the Columbia Valley right now, and the price for an employee is very high, is effectively mass deportation for a lot of people who are here. When their contracts or work permits expire – whether it’s six months from now or even less – they are going to be sent home,” said Taft. “Some of these people have made homes in the Kootenays, and in some cases they are having children and have purchased property here.
“Although the program is for temporary foreign workers, there are no foreign workers who ever came to Canada with the intention of only working here for a year and then leaving. Every single one of them saw it as a stepping stone to become landed immigrants.”
The temporary foreign workers program has become a hot potato for the Harper government ever since stories of abuses came to light in the news media, including one case where Royal Bank employees were asked to train foreign workers to take over their jobs.
A recent government calculation estimated there were 386,000 temporary foreign workers in Canada, or about two per cent of the labour force, up from about 100,000 in 2002.
“Employers are going to have to try and figure out what they are going to do,” said Wilks. “There were some employers who were basing their business model on how many temporary foreign workers they could employ. That’s not going to happen anymore.
“As Canadians, we were able to deal with this prior to 2002. I’m sure we can figure it out after 2014 as well.”
With files from