Liew: Let’s make real reforms to the Temporary Foreign Worker program

Liew: Let’s make real reforms to the Temporary Foreign Worker program


Published on: September 26, 2016 | Last Updated: September 26, 2016 12:15 PM EDT

Liew: Let's make real reforms to the Temporary Foreign Worker program

During its first week back, Parliament handed in some homework. The Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities (HUMA) tabled a report on its review of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP).

The program allows Canadian employers to hire foreign nationals to fill labour shortages in areas such as agriculture, food services and retail. While the current program is a convenient way for high-skilled workers to come to Canada, it is also a vehicle for low-skilled workers to come, but with limited rights and usually no chance of obtaining permanent status.

The 74-page report is an impressive summary of expert testimony and evidence presented to the committee in the spring. However, the process was rushed, the opportunity to present evidence was limited, and petty politics often sidelined real issues. It is difficult to imagine the extent to which the committee could adequately have examined the issues in such a complex area of Canada’s labour and immigration practices in five short sessions that heard mostly from employers.

Nonetheless, the report provides some good recommendations to help decrease the abuse of migrant workers in Canada. For example, it recommends the removal of the “four-in and four-out” rule which limits a temporary foreign worker from staying in Canada to four years and prohibits them from coming back to Canada for another four. This recommendation recognizes that foreign workers, over four years, not only contribute to our society but integrate into our communities, and therefore should be considered for permanent membership in our neighbourhoods.

As well, the report recommends eliminating “employer-specific” work permits. Under current law, if a temporary foreign worker loses his or her job, he or she could be forced to leave the country. This recommendation recognizes the abuse and exploitation that many foreign workers suffer when their immigration status is tied to their employer.

Beyond this, however, the report misses an opportunity to provide a visionary framework for our wider immigration policy. It sticks to the well-worn and used path of creating specific streams for the program to fill labour needs and capping the number of applicants for admission, while reinforcing the temporary nature of the program.

A more visionary path would be one where the government uses temporary programs less and permanent programs more. Envisioning permanent residence as a primary tool to fill labour needs is a long-term, cost-effective solution to eliminating abuse and exploitation by employers, immigration consultants and lawyers. Permanent residency also eliminates the problem of prolonged and painful family separation.

Reinforcing the temporary nature of the program also means that a growing number of non-citizens who live, work and pay taxes in Canada will be treated as second-class citizens despite the fact that they do some of the most difficult work in our society. Those who pick our fruit, clean our toilets, care for our children, elderly and dying deserve permanent status in Canada, along with their families. If they are good enough to work here, why are they not good enough to stay here?

The report contemplates providing “a pathway for permanent residence,” but only for some workers. It forces those and other temporary workers to live a precarious life in limbo, wondering if they can really settle, set roots, and build meaningful relationships. Temporary programs also mean lengthy and difficult separation from family, including young children. The report does not make any recommendation to alleviate the calls by migrant workers to be with their families, something many of us take for granted as we walk our kids to school each morning.

Jamie Liew is an immigration and refugee lawyer and a professor of law at the University of Ottawa.