Canada’s Immigration Policy: Who’s on the guest list?

This article first appeared in the Globe and Mail’s online feature Economy Lab on Friday. My thanks to all the commentators on this page for the great discussion of the topic.

This week, the Minister of Immigration and Citizenship rightly noted that immigrants are Canada’s ticket to economic growth in the coming years.

The untold story is this: Canada’s growing reliance on newcomers is increasingly turning to temporary foreign workers — “guest workers” — rather than new immigrants and future citizens to propel growth.

The rise in the number of temporary foreign workers has accelerated over the past decade, most rapidly since 2006. Today their ranks eclipse those of economic immigrants.


Labour market shortages will grow in the coming years, as boomers retire in record numbers. How we bring people into Canada to meet our labour market needs will shape the evolving nature of Canada itself. Immigration and temporary foreign workers are two very different answers to the problem of how to sustain our standard of living.

Immigration is driven by people wanting to settle in this country, and the entry quotas are set by public policy to meet the public interest of Canadians. Temporary foreign work permits are issued to meet the needs of employers who, ostensibly, face labour shortages that cannot be addressed by Canadian workers. This process is not based on quotas. In principle and practice, there are no upper limits.

These workers are brought into Canada as, essentially, the guests of the employer. They have few rights (of which they are often unaware). They have no access to services available to other immigrants. Theirs is rarely a path to permanent residency.

In 2010, Canada allowed 182,322 temporary foreign workers to enter Canada to meet employers’ needs. This is the second-highest number on record, the highest being in 2008.

Some temporary foreign work permits are issued for longer than a year, some only for months. Consequently the total number of temporary foreign workers to address employers’ identified labour market needs is higher than the number of entries in a given year.

In 2010, there were 283,096 temporary foreign workers in Canada, doing work that employers asserted there was no Canadian available to do.

That is the highest number of temporary foreign workers on record, but only slightly higher than the number recorded in 2009, during the worst of the recession.

The highest demand for temporary foreign workers stems from the fastest growing economies in Canada: Alberta and Saskatchewan. But every jurisdiction except Newfoundland and Labrador and Nunavut has at least doubled their utilization of these “guest workers”.

The biggest growth in employer demand has been for basic labour or unspecified skills, especially since the recession. In 2000, 11 per cent of temporary foreign workers performed basic labour or unspecified skills; now 34 per cent of them do. They used to primarily fall into the categories of nannies and caregivers, or seasonal agricultural workers. Employers are now using the temporary work permit program to bring in workers for hotels, fast food outlets, janitorial services and factories — typical Canadian jobs, albeit low-paying.

“The temporary foreign worker program is really about contracting out immigration,” says Yessy Byl, a lawyer who volunteers with the Edmonton Community Legal Centre. “In fact the government is setting the stage for a bizarre non-immigration program because those workers can’t immigrate.”

Whether unintentional or not, the shaping of public policy seems to be increasingly off-loaded to private sector interests rather than handled by those charged with addressing the public interest, which include but are broader than employers’ needs.

Local economic needs are an important factor in shaping immigration policy, and the involvement of employers can and should reduce skill mismatches.

But there’s a danger in allowing employers, alone, to define Canada’s immigration policy: Employers are increasingly looking for average workers, not skilled labour.

Cheap labour, that is. Workers who increasingly depend on the goodwill of their employer rather than the rule of law.

This week, the Law Commission of Ontario, in its ongoing efforts to make the law accessible to all residents, started looking at what can be done about the rise of vulnerable workers.

By allowing employers to drive the agenda based on their own short-term interests, the federal government has dropped the ball on Canada’s long-term interests and has taken immigration policy down a troubling path: the normalization of migrant labour in Canada.

For a country that has grown into one of the most diverse, peaceful and prosperous nations on the planet, this shift in immigration policy signals a troubling new direction.

Throughout our history the long-standing offer to newcomers, through unifying families and providing citizenship, was the promise of becoming full participants in Canadian society.

In its place, official policy increasingly sanctions and supports employers who use newcomers as cheap and disposable labour. It’s bad for diversity, it’s a terrible trend for workplaces, and it affects everyone.

The role of government is to protect the interests of Canadian workers as well as Canadian employers. That includes protecting the powerless from those willing to exploit our vulnerabilities. Backing away from that job turns immigration into a potential source of social tension, just as Canadians increasingly turn to immigrants to assure our economic future.


  • Great post. I had no idea so many people came here as temporary workers.

    With affordable air travel, the oceans are a lot smaller. I think the idea that immigrants will come here and stay for ever is outdated. So I’m all for programs with lower barriers to entry.

    Still, the guest worker program is flawed, because employers are less likely to fire unsatisfactory employees (because of the delay in replacing them) and employees are less likely to quit abusive employers (because they’d have to go home and re-apply).

    I think the solution would be to enter mutual immigration treaties with countries. The EU, Australia-NZ and USA-Puerto Rico have shown that some people will move, but not the entire country. Even better, as is the case of Polls in Ireland, they will go home, voluntarily, when opportunities dry up.

  • This should be item number one on the agenda of the CLC for its convention this Spring in Vancouver. The mainstream media ignore the subject. I heard John Ralston Saul give a speech talking about how Canada unlike other countries invites people who come here to become citizens. Normally he is well informed, but he reflects the overall absence of serious commentary in the mainstream on labour issues, and specifically on our new guest workers.
    Of course we would not have to bring in foreign workers if we just took up Neil Reynolds idea from his recent Globe Monday piece, and used child labour instead.

  • It is not at all clear to me why we should be using immigration to solve our labour supply problems. Take the most radical case: zero immigration. What are the implications for unemployment and the average wage? I understand that Canada has a long history (it is its history) of using immigration to solve its labour supply problems.

    The productivity data suggest this may not be the best solution. Maybe using immigrant labour undermines wage growth and thus investment in more productive means of production resulting in lower productivity and declining wage shares.

    I understand this observation can be read as selfish and myopic if not xenophobic query but there is a point where we have to ask if our tomatoes should cost little more and our daycare providers should get paid significantly more, etc., etc.,.

    And maybe, just maybe the lack of skilled workers would force Canadian employers to get more involved in financing the skills they need rather than putting that responsibility fully onto the backs of workers.

    That said, I do agree with your underlying point that if we are going to use immigration as the solution to our labour supply problems then they must be made workers with full recourse to their rights as Canadian citizens

  • Well, one question that comes to my mind is: What labour supply problems? We have a well educated workforce and quite high unemployment. The only “labour supply problem” I can imagine there being is that the unemployment rate isn’t quite high enough to bully the local labour force into accepting wages minimal enough for employers’ taste. Or, to put it a different way, the Canadian labour force isn’t “flexible” enough. I’m not sure that’s a “problem” I want solved.

  • Armine, excellent article, but I wonder, are you comparing like with like? It sounds as if the temporary workers numbers are a stock, i.e. the total number of temporary workers in the country. But the permanent economic immigrant numbers must be a flow?

    One thing that I find worrying are the provincial/territorial immigration programs, where Yukon allows Tim Hortons to sponsor immigrants to serve coffee and zap doughnuts in the microwave, while there are massive unemployment problems among the aboriginal commuity.

  • PLG,

    Armine is talking about medium to long run-labour supply. But I think your point still holds. It is funny that the right leaning side of the economics profession does not ever seem to get all that bothered about manipulating labour supply. Immigrant labour and particularly temporary variety are implicit gov. subsidies yet so little out-rage.

    I would say it is a puzzle but it really is not.

  • I agree with Frances: the table appears to compare the stock of temporary foreign workers with the flow of economic immigrants. The flows were approximately equal in 2010 (182,322 temporary foreign workers and 186,881 economic immigrants), which is still noteworthy.

  • Also, hands off Saskatchewan! In 2010, it accounted for 3.1% of Canada’s population, but only 2.1% of all temporary foreign workers and 1.7% of that year’s inflow of temporary foreign workers.

    Alberta and BC are still leading this trend. Alberta had 10.9% of Canada’s population, 20.4% of all temporary foreign workers, and 13.2% of the inflow. BC had 13.3% of Canada’s population, 23.9% of all temporary foreign workers, and 25.2% of the inflow.

  • I think a good Marxian analysis of the problem quite well.

    The is no supply problem, raise wages and you will get the results. A t least a semblance of a plan on the accreditation and training front should more than iron out the short run problems. It is just too easy to import the solution.

    Did you know that over half of the GDP of el Salvador comes from migrant workers, With flows to the USA, Canada and
    other countries. So let’s not kid anybody, this pu and simple exploitation. Give these workers their rights and instead of complaining about bother countries low wage policies, deal with our own turf first.

    Sweat shops are common place in fortress USA? Time for action.

  • Sorry my iPad typing is bad

  • Frances and Erin: Good and appropriate question re stock and flow and what is being compared.

    The economic immigrant data is flow, total entries over the course of the year. These people stay put. Every year’s new economic immigrants join all others, and eventually they become Canadian citizens.

    I used the census of temporary foreign workers as at Dec 1 instead of total entries for two reasons:

    data availability for 2010 preliminary stats; and
    providing a sense of scale regarding how this class of newcomer is being used as a “just-in-time” replacement work force.

    It’s an employer driven demand program. It bypasses a lot of red tape. People come to work on this basis in the mistaken belief that they can stay (viewing it as a quick immigration process). The employers can decide if the person stays or goes, during or at the end of their permit.

    Re Data availability: I would have preferred to use just the data series that showed the census of temporary foreign workers present at Dec 1 who had entered during the year, to control for the huge variability in seasonal agricultural workers, whose numbers ebb and flow by demand conditions that are not just employer driven (weather and yield related). Some agricultural workers are still here as at Dec 1 (mushroom pickers for example), but most are gone – and this class of temporary foreign worker is not the issue. As at Dec 1 data series reduces the fog quite a bit. They don’t produce preliminary stats for this (temporary workers entered in 2010 and present at Dec 1), just for all temp foreign workers present.

    So that’s what I turned to, and found the data to be very striking.

    Note that this is not a “stock” in the sense that these people stay put. They are here for a limited time only – that’s why the permit is issued in the first place: to meet a time-limited labour shortage identified by employers.

    The data series includes people that entered in 2010 on a temporary work permit, as well as those who entered in 2009.

    Employers were using this program to fill positions in jurisdictions with very low unemployment rates before the recession (though they could have found more people if they’d raise the hourly wages).

    Their utilization of the program increased right through the recession, and dramatically so. I note in the article that the total entries peaked in 2008. They fell by about 14,000 people in 2009, yet there were 32,000 more temporary foreign workers present in 2009 than in 2008, at the worst of the recession.

    There are, over time, more temporary foreign workers with permits lasting longer than one year. Employers should be able to hire and train locals to do the job in that period.

    Temporary foreign workers are increasingly found at work in fast food joints (think Tim Horton’s, etc.), auto part factories, hotels, companies that provide janitorial services and a host of other non-temporary non-skilled labour requirements.

    They have no rights. They often stay after their work permit expires and are even MORE exploited by their employers.

    So the stock of foreign workers is even larger if you include the uncountable undocumented foreign workers.

  • Dear Altavistagoogle
    Looking ahead, we know that the world’s biggest industrial economies are facing very rapid aging of the labour force.

    The solution is either or both more competition for labour from elsewhere (importing the solution) or more labour-replacing technology (including androids for more human interface type services)

    For the past 40 years or so, the global challenge has been attracting capital. In future, basic supply and demand conditions suggest the challenge will be attracting labour.

    Could the concern over capital mobility be eclipsed by the concern over labour mobility?

    It might be possible if all the employers were small.

    But in this era of corporate consolidation, there are a number of employers who are setting the agenda. Vale being one.

    In Brazil, Vale uses temporary workers – if memory serves, in 2 year stints – cycling in and out of the mines. When they told workers they were going to “change your culture” in Sudbury, they may have had in mind breaking the union to be able to import their HR model from Brazil, and bring in temporary foreign workers to work the mines in Canada.

    At a Honda assembly plant in southern Ontario temporary workers on limited time contracts work cheek by jowl with a shrinking number of permanent workers who were offered a buy-out package and a crack at the new contract jobs. I’m told it’s not unusual. This may be the new normal.

    There are more workers than bosses, and there will be a growing demand for labour just as the supply of labour shrinks in many large economies. But that doesn’t guarantee that labour power will come back with a roar. For that to happen, there has to be some curbs on employers’ ability to set all political agendas, from tax cuts to immigration policy.

  • Travis, unless the way we do things changes dramatically with labour-replacing tech change in the coming decade or so, we will need to have more people from outside Canada come and help sustain our standard of living in the course of the next 25 to 40 years. Or accept a decline in that standard of living.

    There are 3 million people aged 55 and older who are currently working. Boomers are working longer than any previous generation, but we’re not going to run an economy with a bunch of 80 year olds. Eventually they will retire.

    With the exception of the aboriginal population, fertility rates continue to drop. There are not enough aboriginals (3% of the population) to make up for a loss of 3 million workers.

    It is doubtful that immigration could provide their replacement (though we’ve essentially doubled our immigration – because of temporary foreign workers – in the last few years)

    And, as can be seen from the response in the comments section of the Globe and Mail article, you can “import the solution” but it may very well create other problems if people don’t see the big picture.

  • Erin re regional variation. I wasn’t singling out SK. If you look at the rate of growth, the fastest growing utilization of guest workers is SK and AB. Tight labour markets. BC’s story, as your rightfully point out, is quite striking given the slow economic growth. This may be because of demographics – the population has m ore elderly – and the use of the primary caregiver population has exploded, particularly importing help from China. I haven’t pulled back the veil on these numbers, but it’s worth a look. I’m looking at you CCPA-BC.

  • I am not sure I buy that Armine, there is plenty of labour slack now and in the future. Underemployment and precarious work run rampant.

    The reason many seniors are in the labour force is due to poverty, and necessity.

    Skill shortages on a regional basis I do buy.

  • I think that Saskatchewan had a proportionally large increase because it started from a very small base. PEI actually managed a proportionally larger increase from an even smaller base.

    But fingers should be pointed at Alberta and BC. Isn’t an important part of the story that their provincial governments bought into the temporary foreign worker program?

  • Armine wrote:

    “Travis, unless the way we do things changes dramatically with labour-replacing tech change in the coming decade or so, we will need to have more people from outside Canada come and help sustain our standard of living in the course of the next 25 to 40 years. Or accept a decline in that standard of living.”

    Whose standard of living? Your previous comment to this indicated that all the sectors which are not locationally fixed are under assault and have been for the last thirty years. So unless their is radical change in the balance between capital and labour in these sectors immigration will only slow the process down a bit.

    That is to say, maintaining our standard of living requires radical change anyway you care slice it. And in fact increasing labour supply in the context of the current structural conditions only aggravates the problem.

  • Outstanding post, Armine!

    Several years ago, I worked at an HRSDC-funded employment program in Toronto where we tried to connect homeless persons with short-term labour jobs. I was always struck by what I found to be very high expectations amongst employers. An employer would often offer minimum wage, no guarantees in terms of future work, and no benefits. Yet, in return, I found they wanted extremely docile workers who never said no, and who were willing to travel very far each day to reach the job site.

    From my perspective, the leap from being homeless and unemployed (or even on social assistance) to low-paying, steady work always seemed enormous.

    John Stapleton (whom I respect very much), Don Drummond and others have been successful in getting work disincentives (i.e. the “welfare wall”) on to the public policy agenda. I applaud that. But just as important, in my opinion, is the lack of low-paying job opportunities that place reasonable expectations on workers.

    Your blog post has just made it clearer to me as to why jobs at the low-end of the pay scale are so competitive. It seems to be a very intentional policy to create a desperate and docile labour force.

  • Paul says “plenty of labour slack now and in the future. Underemployment and precarious work run rampant.:

    You are right, at least about the present situation, which is precisely why I wrote about this.

    The increase in this category of temporary worker, during a recession no less, is shocking, at least to me.

    I remember sitting in the Budget lockup in 2007 and being shocked that they were devoting $51 million to expanding the Temporary Foreign Worker program when for the previous two years or so there had been so much talk about the need for a process to help recognize or provide affordable ways to re-train/re-certify skilled immigrants so there wouldn’t be so many of them underemployed. Not a cent for that though.

    Erin, this post is not about finger pointing at who’s the baddest jurisdiction. It’s a broad based phenomenon – everyone has doubled their use of guest workers, or more, except NL and Nunavut.

    I didn’t include PEI as the fastest growing increase, in percentage terms, because it starts from a very small base (smaller than SK) and is being driven by the fact that agricultural workers are aging and retiring and there’s not a lot of young people who see a future in potato picking in PEI. Whether that’s good or bad is a topic for another debate.

    That isn’t what I am writing about.

    This story is a heads up about a new phenomenon that hasn’t even begun to be big yet, precisely because we are in a weak recovery from a terrible recession, and because the baby boomers haven’t yet started retiring in huge numbers.

    The so=called recovery has been marked by weak private sector job growth thus far, with much of it occuring via temporary positions.

    People who lost their jobs at $30 an hour are struggling to come to terms with finding only work at $15 an hour, as that’s all that is on offer, and often with unreliable hours of work attached.

    The rise of the guest worker phenomenon further weakens the floor under everyone in the labour market.

    It’s not really a story about immigrants at all, temporary or otherwise.

    It’s about how public policy is structurally shifting, supporting and sanctioning employers who view labour as dispensible.

    I wrote my piece as the other half of what the Minister of Immigration and Citizenship was talking about, the untold story that he and this government is unlikely to want anybody to talk about.

  • I agree that indeed employers are embarking on something new, whereby the approach to workers has a ferociousness that backed by public policy will affect the entire labour force. Ratcheting down many worker centric standards. It has been with us for many years in some industries like agriculture, but indeed becoming entrenched in other industries, and that with the lubricant of public policy.

    We can use the USA along the border of mexico as an example to show how divisive and destructive it can become when worker rights are not protected. However these workers can, if needed go back home. Look at the case of nannies or house keepers in Canada. Many of these foreign workers whole lives become hostage to the process of work.

    So the solution, and i do credit some organized labour in
    Canada is fighting for better regulations. If the standards of these workers are protected then it sends a loud message to policy makers and the business community. But without even the right to form a union, it is difficult to see how policy alone can protect these workers. It is, leading to a duality within our labour force that is very divisive, and dangerous.

  • A reader of the Globe and Mail posting of this article links to this very informative and startling article in the Vancouver Sun.

    Startling because of
    a) the types of job classes which were opened up to employers’ applications: “In 2001, the focus was on filling labour shortages in the technology sector. They were expanded to other fields, including nursing, construction trades, truck transportation, fast food services, hotel management, retail and more.” Remember, these temporary workers can’t get into the country without the employer providing the job. What’s wrong with letting a nurse immigrate?

    “At first, the bank [Scotiabank] marketed StartRight to landed immigrants, international students and immigrant investors, “but we found if we included temporary foreign workers, the market was much bigger,” said Llewellyn.

    She emphasized the bank isn’t interested in customers who are mere seasonal workers, but “if a temporary foreign worker has a one-year contract to be in Canada, he or she qualifies for StartRight. It means they are being recruited for a specific skill set. As an institution, we can’t look at this group as temporary because they come and want to stay.”

    The story also mentions how temporary foreign workers want to stay and simply apply for permanent residency. That may be true in some cases, but my understanding is that they can only move ahead with the process with their employers’ backing [read “compliant workforce’], and it takes much longer than other forms of application. Corrections?

  • Here is an article from a facebook friend of mine that focuses an some of the US situation. It is striking as it really gets at the public policy. Also check out the authors photos of migrant workers, he is an awesome social photographic artist. Kind of a Studs Terkel with a camera. Love his work.

  • Since 2002, the Temporary Foreign Worker Program has substantially changed by including low skilled workers and by rapidly accelerating the use of this program to bring workers to Canada. The real issue is the creation and use of a “sub-class” of workers whose status inevitably leads to rampant abuse and exploitation of many of those workers. This tenuous status affects many things in our society: it skews the labour market (vulnerable workers forced to work for less), hinders integration (at least one study showed that multiculturalism is more successful when newcomers have permanent residency status), fosters undocumented workers (after all, those workers thought they were coming to stay permanently). We only need to look to Europe and the U.S. to see the results. And when did we become such elitists? Our immigration system does not allow people considered to be “low skilled” to immigrate and yet much of our labour needs are in those “low-skilled” jobs. The bottom line is that most of the jobs that “temporary” foreign workers are filling are permanent jobs and most TFWs come because they want to immigrate. Only the Province of Manitoba has recognized this with its rational and humane programs with respect to TFWs. We need to develop programs so that our unemployed Canadians can fill those jobs (unemployment rates of new Immigrants is still well over 20%) and if there are not enough Canadians, then we should have a rational immigration system that allows people to come to Canada with permanent residency rights to do those jobs . I thought we had learned our lesson from how we treated Chinese workers in the 1800’s. Apparently not. The only difference is that the government doesn’t charge a “head tax”…. the recruiters do.

  • Thanks for participating in this discussion Yessy. Can you provide links to a description of the Manitoba approach? Or elaborate a little on what that approach is?

  • In the late 1990’s the federal government instituted the Provincial Nominee Program which allows the provinces to nominate foreign workers or prospective immigrants for a fast- tracked immigration process. Manitoba realized that they had an urgent need for permanent immigration to fill low skilled jobs (most provinces don’t use the program much and if they do, its for skilled workers) and has set up their Provincial Nominee Program in a manner which makes permanent residency available to ALL temporary foreign workers, regardless of skill level. The number of Provn Nominee spots they are allocated by the federal government (restricting numbers of PNP nominees was newly imposed by the feds last year….another move to restrict access to permanent residency to TFWs) basically matches the number of TFWs that come to Manitoba (approx. 5,000/year).
    Manitoba also has extensive settlement programs available for TFWs, encourages the entry of TFW families (families of low skilled and often skilled TFWs are typically refused entry), has better protections for TFWs (employers and recruiters must place bonds before being allowed to bring TFWs) and better coordination with the federal government.
    By contrast, most other provinces do not allow low skilled workers to apply for the PNP. (Yukon is one exception and apparently Sask as well.) In Alberta, specific low skilled occupations are permitted to apply but given that Alberta has probably about 25,000 – 30,000 low skilled TFW workers and only about 2,000-2,500 Provincial Nominee slots for those workers, that leaves many of the TFWs without any avenue for permanent residency.
    Many of the provinces do not prohibit the charging of recruitment fees by agencies bringing TFWs to Canada. In Alberta and B.C. such fees are prohibited but the law is so outdated that there have been no prosecutions despite flagrant contraventions. I don’t know how successful the Manitoba legislation is but given their overall approach, I would think that exploitation of TFWs is minimized.
    Overall, Manitoba has basically taken a position against “migrant workers” and used the TFW program as a true immigration program for needed workers regardless of skill level.

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