Ottawa considers modifying 10 per cent cap on temporary foreign workers

Ottawa considers modifying 10 per cent cap on temporary foreign workers

Ottawa considers modifying 10 per cent cap on temporary foreign workers

The federal government is looking at changing a rule that would limit the number of low-wage temporary foreign workers to no more than 10 per cent of the total workforce of Canadian businesses starting in July. 

“For some sectors where we haven’t found the Canadians to fill those voids, it will make a huge challenge for businesses,” Employment Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk said in an interview with Postmedia on Thursday. “And if they can’t find that workforce, then they must have access to temporary foreign workers or we could lose businesses.”

Mihychuk, who highlighted the labour shortages Alberta’s meat processors are facing, said she anticipates making an announcement on the issue soon after receiving the findings of a federal review of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. A report by the parliamentary committee examining the program is expected to be released within days.

While Mihychuk didn’t specify whether the 10 per cent cap would be scrapped altogether or relaxed for certain industries, a policy change could bring welcome relief for many businesses in low-paying industries, such as meat processing, seafood processing and hospitality.

Employers in these sectors say Canadians aren’t eager to take available jobs, especially in remote areas, and that positions are left vacant.

“If you go to the meat processing plants, you will see hundreds of stations that sit empty,” Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst, executive director of the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council, told the committee reviewing the TFWP earlier this month. 

In Alberta’s beef sector, the shortage of skilled butchers to work in meat processing plants is felt down the supply chain. Cows fetch less value for cattle feeders when meat processors don’t have the manpower to produce a full range of cuts to maximize money earned from each animal, said Casey Vander Ploeg, manager of policy and research at the Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association.

The TFW caps, which have been implemented on a sliding scale starting with a 30 per cent cap in 2014, were put in place by the Harper government as part of a series of reforms to push employers to prioritize hiring Canadian workers over foreign ones. They apply to employers with 10 or more employees, with exemptions for primary agriculture and caregivers. 

But, according to Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the caps are the most negative of various reforms made by the Conservatives that rendered the program “near useless” to small-and medium-sized firms. 

These include restaurants and motels in remote areas that find it difficult to hire people as housekeepers or waiters, but easily hit their cap because of their small staff, he explained. A pizza shop with a staff of 10, for example, would only be permitted one TFW. 

“We are thrilled that Minister Mihychuk and the Liberals seem to be taking a much more thoughtful and reasonable approach with the Temporary Foreign Worker Program,” Kelly said. 

In Banff and Lake Louise, hotels and restaurants face a labour shortage in spite of Alberta’s economic downturn. In September, when student employees return to high school and university, the region expects to feel a “pinch” that could be eased if they are able to hire more TFWs, said Darren Reeder, executive director of the Banff and Lake Louise Hospitality Association.

But in order for a reform to work, it must happen quickly and be cost-effective. The current timeline for processing applications, which is about six months, would be too slow to fill immediate shortages with additional TFWs, Reeder said.

The employment minister made a concession earlier this year that gave employers in seasonal industries, including tourism, permission to hire unlimited TFWs for a maximum of 180 days in 2016.

But Reeder told Postmedia in May that most businesses in Banff have not taken advantage of it because of the high cost. That’s because bringing in a worker for six months costs the same as bringing in a TFW for a longer period of time outside of the exemption. The price tag includes a $1,000 labour market impact assessment fee paid to the Canadian government and round trip airfare for the worker from their home country.

The seafood processing sector has taken advantage of the 180-day exemption. However, Jerry Amirault, president of the Lobster Processors Association of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, said it has been inadequate to meet their needs because bringing in workers for 180 days does not align with the industry’s season of nine to 10 months.

Changes to the 10 per cent cap could help tackle the problem, but “time is of the essence,” he said. 

Though Amirault and other the business representatives interviewed by Postmedia welcomed Mihychuk’s comments, they also said that scrapping or modifying the cap would be a small step toward solving the ongoing labour shortages they face.

It was a point echoed by Mihychuk, who said she is considering creating more opportunities for low-skilled migrants to become permanent residents. 

“The reason that employers have been using the Temporary Foreign Worker Program in lower-skilled occupational categories is because they have basically been prevented from using the permanent immigration stream to that end,” said Kelly.