Alberta employers will be forced to give up six times as many temporary foreign workers as employers in Ontario by 2016 — even though Ontario’s unemployment rate is significantly higher.
That’s one of the findings from a new report which concludes Western provinces are disproportionately bearing the brunt of the federal government’s crackdown on the use of foreign workers. The report — released Monday by the Canada West Foundation — suggests that while recent reforms to the TFW program may have been aimed at helping unemployed Canadians find work, the impact of the changes is actually being felt in regions with the lowest joblessness rates.
“The changes to the temporary foreign worker program hit provinces with tight labour markets the hardest. And they only slightly impact the provinces with higher unemployment,” said Farahnaz Bandali, senior policy analyst with the Canada West Foundation and author of the report. “Half of the entire country’s reduction is going to come from Alberta alone.”
In June of 2014, in response to growing controversy over the use of temporary foreign workers by Canadian employers, the federal government announced a series of reforms aimed at reducing the number of low-skilled, low-wage workers entering the country through the program. Beginning in July 2015, employers can have no more than 20 per cent of their workforce made up of low-wage TFWs — a cap that will be lowered to 10 per cent starting in July 2016.
The reforms also restrict employers’ access to the low-wage stream of the program in regions where the unemployment rate is higher than 6 per cent. But Bandali said that since Western provinces have relied more heavily on TFWs to fill the gaps in their labour market, the changes actually serve to create new hiring difficulties in areas where unemployment rates are the lowest.
For example, Alberta’s unemployment rate as of Dec. 31, 2013 was 4.6 per cent, compared to 7.6 per cent in Ontario. But the federal government’s own figures predict Alberta will have to decrease its entries of low-wage TFWs by 8,407 people by 2016, while Ontario will only have to give up 1,369.
It is projected that more than half of the overall national reduction in temporary foreign worker permits by 2016 will be borne by Alberta.
The same statistics show that 1.7 per cent of Alberta’s labour force was composed of TFWs as of the end of 2013, compared to 0.31 per cent in Ontario and 0.55 per cent nationwide. But Janet Lane, director of the Canada West Foundation’s Centre for Human Capital Policy, said Alberta employers seem genuinely unable to find Canadians willing to flip burgers or clean hotel rooms.
“(The government reforms) were a response to an overall feeling in the country that temporary foreign workers were taking jobs away from Canadians, but it’s not necessarily true that that’s happening across the country,” she said.
Lane added it’s possible that Alberta’s inability to access the TFWs it needs could actually hamper the province’s ability to bounce back from the current climate of low energy prices.
“When things recover, if you cannot get a hotel room in northern Alberta because they’ve had to close or shut beds in hotels and they can’t find people to staff those places, it could cause a bit more of a slowdown,” she said.
However, Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said it is “tone-deaf” for anyone to argue in favour of an employer’s right to foreign labour in the midst of an economic slowdown.
“The unemployment rate is going up, and it makes absolutely no sense to keep flooding the market with temporary foreign workers when Canadians are having a harder and harder time finding and keeping jobs,” McGowan said.
At the time the government announced its reforms to the TFW program, then-Employment Minister Jason Kenney acknowledged that Alberta would be affected significantly by the changes. He suggested that employers in Alberta would have to find a “market response” to the problem and respond to the scarcity of labour through higher wages and higher prices and more active recruitment measures.
Kenney also said at the time that Alberta employers have become “addicted” to foreign workers because they are reliable and productive.