Temporary foreign worker program must have open work permits

A more modest proposal than permanent status for all but unlikely given some business community opposition:

If your boss asked you to pay him $1,000 in cash to keep your job, expected you to work without safety equipment or holiday pay, or told you to sleep on the floor in the apartment he was renting to you … you would probably quit. I hope you would.

But if you are a temporary foreign worker this may not feel like an option for you.

The Canadian temporary foreign worker program continues to grow, as companies grapple with labour shortages in many sectors. Last year an estimated 220,000 temporary foreign workers came to Canada and this number is likely to be even higher next year as the federal government relaxes restrictions on the program.

Will the number of abuses increase too? Probably, unless we change the way the program is administered.

The biggest problem right now is closed work permits. Temporary foreign workers must stay with the employer who hires them. If temporary foreign workers quit or are fired they can only work for a new employer who happens to have an unfilled labour market impact assessment (LMIA), or they have to return home. And because temporary foreign workers all have closed work permits, they sometimes endure working conditions that Canadian employees would walk away from.

Open work permits, in contrast, would give temporary foreign workers the same flexibility that Canadians take for granted. Open work permits would allow them to quit a job that is abusive and move to any other employer that will hire them. Interestingly, open work permits are already offered to temporary foreign workers who can demonstrate that they are being mistreated. But at that point the abuse has already happened. And many temporary foreign workers are reluctant to report abusive employers because they are (mistakenly) worried about jeopardizing their future chances to apply for permanent residency. 

Open work permits are also more flexible for employers. With one, a temporary foreign worker can be promoted easily or moved to where they are needed most within an organization, especially as they gain more experience and their skills improve. Companies’ needs change quickly, and this flexibility can be crucial in a competitive environment. Some temporary foreign workers could even work at a second part-time, short-term, or seasonal job, if they wanted.

To be sure, some advocacy groups would argue that we should immediately grant citizenship or permanent residency to all temporary foreign workers as soon as they arrive in Canada. However, the amount of bureaucracy involved would also increase dramatically, slowing down a process that is already very cumbersome. When companies are hiring workers they usually need someone immediately. Temporary foreign workers who are seeking work also need to be able to work as soon as possible.

Granting immediate permanent residency to all temporary foreign workers would also give the companies that use the temporary foreign worker program, such as slaughterhouses and fast-food restaurant chains, much greater involvement in deciding who immigrates to Canada. Most Canadians would not be comfortable with more corporate involvement in Canadian immigration decisions.

Of course, with open work permits some companies might complain that their investment — the worker they just recruited — will walk out the door. Temporary foreign workers are more expensive and time consuming to recruit than Canadians. Companies pay $1,000 just to apply for a LMIA that enables them to recruit temporary foreign workers, and they may also have to pay for the worker’s transportation or housing costs. 

However, the risk of their new worker leaving is the incentive for companies to treat their temporary foreign workers well. Companies should not choose workers just because they cannot quit. 

Every few weeks we hear about more temporary foreign workers being exploited or mistreated. The government continues to tinker with the temporary foreign worker program, so these abuses continue. Open work permits would enable these workers to walk away from bad jobs, just like any Canadian.

Catherine Connelly is a Canada Research Chair in organizational behaviour at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University and the author of “Enduring Work: Experiences with Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program.”

Source: Temporary foreign worker program must have open work permits

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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