Canada kept doors open to temporary foreign workers during 2020’s pandemic lockdown, new numbers reveal

The project that Dan Hiebert, Howard Ramos and I have been working on:

Despite its pandemic lockdown, Canada managed to keep its doors open to temporary foreign workers last year, new numbers reveal.

Amid travel restrictions and vastly reduced immigration, 322,815 people were issued a work permit under various temporary foreign worker programs, according to a joint project that tracks the pandemic’s impacts on Canadian immigration

Although that represents a drop of 10 per cent from the year before, temporary foreign workers appear to have been substantially less interrupted by COVID-19 than those in other streams of immigration to this country.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • The number of permanent residents admitted to Canada last year nosedived by 45.7 per cent, to just 185,130, from 2019;
  • The number of study permit holders also dropped by 33 per cent to 277,720, with the enrolment in primary and secondary schools down 32.3 per cent and in post-secondary education down almost 32 per cent. Those in language programs fell by 54 per cent; and
  • A total of 23,845 people sought asylum in Canada, compared to 64,045 in 2019. Claims made at airports and land borders dropped by 77 per cent and 72 per cent, respectively, due primarily to border closures. 

“Canada has been pretty dedicated to bringing in the people that it needs on a temporary work side,” said University of British Columbia professor Daniel Hiebert, a co-founder of the COVID research project. “There’s a Canadian interest story to be told.”

According to the immigration data, 215,080 work permit holders were admitted under “Canadian interests,” which include athletes, scholars, those in culture and entertainment, youth in international exchange programs and international students who graduated from a designated Canadian college or university. The group fell by just eight per cent from 233,430.

Migrant farm workers made up the second largest group, accounting for 54,145 of the work permit holders, representing a 6.1 per cent decline from 2019.

Those temporary foreign workers who required a labour market assessment to prove they’re not taking a job from a Canadian dropped by almost 13 per cent to 30,890 from 35,365 in 2019.

The biggest losers were foreign caregivers and foreign workers under trades agreements such as intra-company transferees, down by 49 per cent and 31 per cent respectively.

Andrew Griffith, another co-founder of the COVID and Immigration research project, said it makes sense for Ottawa to prioritize processing temporary residents such as migrant workers and international students, who are of Canada’s short-term economic interest and a crucial group in the country’s permanent resident pipeline.

Just in February, with the border still closed to prospective immigrants overseas, Ottawa invited a record 27,332 people to apply for permanent residence, and 90 per cent of the invitees are already living in Canada, with at least one year of Canadian work experience. 

With the immigration shortfall in 2020, Ottawa plans to welcome more than 1.2 million permanent residents over the next three years.

“I’m worried about the impact of COVID on those already in Canada,” said Griffith, a former director general at the immigration department. “Is it fair and ethical to encourage a large number of immigrants at a time when their economic prospects are not that great?” 

The immigration data also showed the number of permanent resident applications plummeted in 2020 by a whopping 54.6 per cent to 186,000 from 409,500 in 2019.

Applications from the Americas fell by 64 per cent, followed by those from Europe (57 per cent), Asia (56 per cent), Africa and Oceania (both at 46 per cent).

“Everywhere around the world people are hunkering down a little bit more, just thinking, ‘Why do I want to move thousands of kilometres away during a crisis?’ What’s on people’s minds is, ‘Who’s going to let me in as an immigrant now anyway?’” said Hiebert.

“There’s a sense that this isn’t the right time to try to get into another country. People are just being realistic.”

While it’s hard to predict how global migration will transform as the world digs itself out of the pandemic, Western University professor Howard Ramos said the notion of emigration out of the traditional source countries such as China, India and the Philippines in 2021 and going forward is different than before COVID-19.

“In any of those countries, they are now wrestling for the first time an aging population and potentially shrinking populations as a result of lower child births. The level of development is higher and people are more urban and have more education and affluence at home. The appeal to going abroad is not as it once was,” said Ramos, who works with Hiebert and Griffith on the COVID immigration tracking project.

“North America and Europe look very different than what they once did before the pandemic, as you see some of the chaos experienced with the rollout of the vaccines or when you look at public attitudes. We’ve seen an ugly turn in Canada with anti-Asian hate crime that certainly gives a different lens of Canada as a welcoming country.”

Permanent residents eager to become Canadian citizens were another group that suffered during the pandemic. Only 108,159 immigrants were granted citizenship in 2020, down by 56.8 per cent from 250,083 the year before as officials struggled to transition to offer virtual citizenship tests and oath-taking ceremonies.

While the research project has so far been operating more in a record-keeping mode, Griffith said the data will provide a better sense of the Canadian government’s immigration policy responses to the pandemic and their impact down the road.

“In the end, the interesting question is not just what happened, but why it happened. Did the policy responses have an impact? Was it good impact, bad impact? Was there something that needs to be done differently with hindsight?” Griffith asked.

“Those are the deeper questions, but it’s too early to answer them. This has been the year that the world has gone to hell. Hopefully, starting sometime in late summer we’re getting out of that hole.”


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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