Canada’s McMess: Conservative Party’s Colossal Mishandling of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program

The Liberal Party started it, but the Conservative Party destroyed it. Canada’s temporary foreign worker program is in tatters, and there’s no one to blame but the current government.

The program has been active in Canada for a little over four decades. It was originally conceived to aid businesses in filling hard-to-find positions and to bring in high-skilled foreign labor to perform jobs for which there were no qualified Canadians. With auspicious beginnings, its numbers have ballooned under current Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Since 2006 — when Harper was elected — the program has brought over 500,000 foreign workers to the Canadian job market, and has now expanded from purely high-skilled positions to encompass the fast-food, hospitality, and other trades many deem to be “low-skilled.”

Wherein lies a prickly conflict of opinion: with lower-skilled jobs now available to foreign nationals, a perception has developed in Canada that those participating in the temporary foreign worker program are “stealing” Canadian jobs — a notion that has come to a boiling point over the past few weeks.

Three McDonald’s franchisees in British Colombia have been accused of favoring temporary foreign workers over Canadian employees. According to the CBC, which was the first major news outlet to report on the issue, “favoring” equates giving extra shifts, preferred hours, and offering higher hourly wages to foreign employees.

The outcry caused by these claims was so overwhelming that Employment Minister Jason Kenney imposed an immediate moratorium over the entire temporary foreign worker program. He also suspended the entry of all foreign workers into the restaurant industry, pending a federal review.

Employment Minister Jason Kenney continues to defend the program despite its shortcomings. Source: GlobalVisas.

Kenny’s reaction has quelled the national outcry in some parts, but also created louder protests elsewhere. Dan Kelly, head of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, called the moratorium a “slap in the face” to Canadian entrepreneurs.

“A public conviction of an entire industry is deeply unfair to the thousands of restaurant operators who use the program appropriately and follow all the rules,” he lambasted this week.

In painting all Canadian businesses with the McDonald’s brush, Kenny embraced the prototypical way the government has handled the foreign worker program since 2006: mismanaging it and applying double standards.

While McDonald’s is guilty of abject violations of its employees’ rights, none of them has garnered significant public attention. Instead, the nation has fixated on the large volume of foreign workers McDonald’s employs; and the employment minister’s latest actions fail to grasp that responsibility for those inflated numbers lies with the program parameters, not with companies that follow its rules.

Due to Kenny’s sanctions against the restaurant industry, McDonald’s Canada lashed out too, issuing an official statement saying the company is “deeply disappointed by the reckless disregard of the facts and absence of basic fairness” displayed by the CBC’s report that prompted the program’s suspension.

McDonald’s Canada CEO John Betts was much less diplomatic in accusing the CBC of playing loose with the facts in the report.

“This has been an attack on our brand. This has been an attack on our system. This is an attack on our people. It’s bullshit, okay!” he exclaimed on a recent conference call to McDonald’s franchisees.

While not denying that the report is partly right regarding workers’ rights violations — “there’s an element of truth in each one,” he said — he emphasized that McDonald’s is certainly not the first company to be accused of favoring foreign workers in Canada, and suggested the government is using the timing of the CBC report as a convenient decoy to deviate attention from other controversial cases related to the program

NDP leader Tom Mulcair aired a similar line of reasoning last Monday when he rhetorically asked how long the prime minister had known about the abuses allegedly happening in Canada’s restaurant industry.

“The prime minister has had this figured out for some time but why, in the six years the minister has been taking care of the program, has he never figured it out?”

Regarding similar alleged personnel decisions by the Royal Bank of Canada, the prime minister told the press almost a year ago that “We are going to be bringing forward reforms to the temporary foreign worker program. We have been concerned about the growth.”

In the same address, Harper took it further, emphasizing, almost threateningly, the program’s purpose: “I think it is important for Canadians, and all businesses, to understand that the purpose of this program is to provide temporary — temporary — help in cases where there are absolute and acute labor shortages. It does not have broader purposes than that.”

This week, Harper once again issued a warning: “This government has been clear: this is absolutely unacceptable and it will not be tolerated.”

The irony of the prime minister emphasizing “temporary” in the temporary foreign worker program is particularly offensive, given that Canada’s immigration policies under Harper have been defined by temporariness.

Canada needs to do-away with its perpetual temporariness immigration policy.
Canada needs to do away with the perpetual temporariness of its immigration policy.

In addition to foreign nationals who are part of this program, refugees and permanent residents also live in purgatory, not knowing when, if, or under what arbitrary circumstances the government could revoke their status. Further, the federal officials recently introduced an amendment to the Citizenship Act that would grant it the power to revoke citizenship from Canadian-born citizens for the first time in history, extending the “temporariness” into unprecedented territory.

In calls to repeal the program — and against the still minute number of foreign nationals who are being selected for these low-skilled positions —  we overlook one essential factor: the program is just as troublesome, if not more so, for migrant workers as it is perceived to be for Canadians.

The temporary foreign worker program ties employees to a single employer. Couple that with policy flaws that enable worker exploitation, perpetuate false loyalties, and erode work ethic — all arguments commonly used against migrant workers.

Any way you slice it, the program is a disaster, a disaster that has the unintended consequence of pitting Canadian-born workers against those coming here for better opportunities. Undeniably, both Canadians and foreign nationals alike deserve — and have the moral claim to — equal opportunities. To fix this, though, Canada must end its hypocritical immigration policy based on temporariness and bring migrant workers here with full status, and on a permanent basis.

The answer lies in the encouragement, not discouragement, of foreign workers. Only then will the country truly achieve the freedom of competition it desperately requires.

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