Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker program is ballooning to fill the labour gap, but workers say they’re abused and poorly paid. Is that the solution we want?

Of note. The easing of time limits and percentage of workforce changes make no sense apart from appeasing the business community’s wishes for more flexible and less expensive laboour:

David Rodriguez, a 37-year-old cook from Mexico, says he was fired from a Toronto restaurant less than two months after arriving in Canada for standing up to his verbally abusive employer.

Amelia, 37, from Indonesia, says she was fired for telling her employer she was sexually abused by his father while working as a live-in caregiver in his home in Toronto.

Orel, 35, from Jamaica, says he was “treated like a slave” while employed on a farm in the Niagara region for several years, enduring 10- to 12-hour work days seven days a week for seven months straight.

Claudia, 48, from Mexico, says she was threatened with having her contract terminated when she wanted to take time off to recover from illness and see her family.

All four were granted entry to Canada through the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program, which allows Canadian employers to hire migrant workers to fill temporary jobs to address shortages in the labour force. (The Star has granted anonymity to three of the workers and given them pseudonyms as they could face repercussions for speaking publicly.)

For more than 50 years the controversial program has supplied Canadian employers with migrant workers who can be paid less than Canadian workers while often working longer hours with fewer benefits. Now, thanks to an unprecedented labour shortage that has seen the number of job vacancies in the country skyrocket to a record high of nearly one million, the program has been quietly undergoing a massive expansion.

The number of approvals to hire temporary foreign workers shot up by more than 60 per cent in the first half of 2022 over the year before, and in April the federal government loosened restrictions introduced years ago to prevent employers from abusing the program.

Under the new rules, employers across most sectors are now permitted to hire up to 20 per cent of their workforce through the low-wage stream of the program, which pays workers as little as $15 per hour. That’s double the number of workers allowed under the previous 10 per cent cap — and employers such as hotels and fast food restaurants can hire even more, up to 30 per cent of their workforce.

Economists and worker advocates are concerned about the sudden expansion. They told the Star that while the changes help farms, nurseries, restaurants and trucking companies hire more workers when labour is tight, in the process, the program is creating a rapidly-growing second tier of workers without the same basic rights and protections that resident workers have, resulting in abuse and mistreatment of workers who are threatened with deportation if they complain.

“This absolutely creates a two-tier workforce. In many ways that’s what it’s designed to do, is to have this temporary workforce where people are treated simply as workers as opposed to full human beings. They are here to work under conditions that enable them to be exploited and then leave,” said Fay Faraday, a labour and human rights lawyer and professor at Osgoode Hall Law School.

Amelia came to Canada in 2019 as a live-in care worker. She told the Star she left behind two children to whom she regularly sends money. She has had to endure working 10- to 12-hour days with little time off, often getting paid for only six to eight hours at minimum wage.

Her contracts are precarious and she has often been in the position where she has had to scramble to find a new employer to maintain her status in the country, as was the case when she says she was sexually assaulted by her employer’s father. 

“I have to keep quiet because I have no power here. I live with my employer so I can’t complain. I need to send money back to my children so they can survive, and I need to survive here and pay rent,” Amelia said.

“I had so much hope coming to Canada. But now it’s like I’m in a nightmare. I miss my children, I can’t see them, I can’t touch them. But I have to be strong so I can give them a better life.”

Like Amelia, Orel came to Canada from Jamaica in 2015 to provide for his two children and wife back home, doing seasonal work on a farm in Niagara, harvesting and pruning plums and peaches with about 120 other workers. For several years, Orel said he worked for 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, often for several months in a row.

In Ontario, farm employees are not entitled to daily and weekly limits on hours of work, time off between shifts and overtime pay.

“They treated us like animals, like we didn’t have any rights,” Orel said.

He added that if his employers thought workers were too slow, they would threaten them with deportation.

“He (the employer) used it as a weapon every day,” Orel said. “The government calls our work essential, but there’s no way to get permanent residence. It just feels like we’re being used and thrown away, that’s how we’re treated.”

The abuse some temporary workers are enduring today was not part of the original plan.

The program kicked off back in 1973 with the aim of addressing labour shortages for jobs Canadians could not or would not fill, including agricultural workers, domestic workers and highly skilled jobs, such as specialist physicians and professors.

In 2002, the program was expanded to allow companies to apply to bring in foreign workers to fill jobs in new sectors, including food service and hospitality jobs, under the “Low Skill Pilot Project.”

As a result, between 2000 to 2012, the population of temporary foreign workers in Canada more than tripled to 338,213 from 89,746, according to a report by the Metcalf Foundation, authored by Faraday. By 2014, a total of 567,977 people were working with temporary immigration status, the report said. 

Following allegations that McDonald’s was abusing the program in 2014 — which lead to a federal probe — new regulations were implemented by then employment minister for the federal Conservative party, Jason Kenney, which put a cap on the number of foreign workers employers can hire and limited low-wage workers to no more than 10 per cent of a company’s workforce. Employers were also barred from hiring TFWs in regions where the unemployment rate was above six per cent.

Then, in April of this year, the regulations changed again.

In a bid to address a record-high number of job vacancies in the wake of the pandemic, the federal government amended the TFW program to make it easier for employers to access low-wage temporary foreign labour by increasing the number of migrant workers a company can hire.

The latest numbers show Canadian employers are doing just that. According to recent data from Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), the government department responsible for the TFW program, there was a massive surge in requests from employers to hire foreign workers in the first half of 2022. 

ESDC numbers show that between January and June of this year, employers received 108,595 approvals to hire workers through the program (data for the last two quarters of 2022 have yet to be released). That’s up by more than 60 per cent from the 67,233 approvals granted in the first half of 2021, and more than the pre-pandemic annual total of 108,056 approvals for all of 2018. 

To hire a TFW, an employer must first submit a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) to ESDC for approval, demonstrating that there is a need for a foreign worker to fill the job and that no Canadian worker or permanent resident is available to do the job. 

Once the LMIA is approved, the worker can apply for a work permit. A single application can include several positions and so one LMIA approval could equate to several worker permits issued, and there is no limit on how many positions an employer can apply for with an LMIA. 

Since 2016, LMIA approvals to hire TFWs have steadily increased, with a slight dip in 2020 due to pandemic closures. In 2021 there were a total of 132,027 approvals, up from 87,760 in 2016.

The majority of approvals in the TFW program are for farm workers. From 2017 to 2021, 249,867 LMIAs for farm workers were approved, according to ESDC data. This number is followed by home child-care providers, which had 22,839 approvals between 2017 to 2021.

Cooks are also in high demand, with 20,614 approvals in the same period. In Q2 of this year, there were 7,644 approvals for positions in accommodation and food services, a leap from the same period in 2021, when there were only 2,979 approvals.

According to data from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), 4,144 work permits were issued for cooks in the TFW program from January to October this year, a steep climb from the 112 work permits issued in 2016, and 1,167 work permits in 2017.

Farm workers in the TFW program had a total of 315,484 work permits issued by IRCC from 2016 to October 2022, the highest number of permits among occupations.

But as the program expands, TFWs continue to live with precarious immigration status and are tied to one employer as a condition of their work permit, which means that complaining about an employer could cost a worker their job and legal status in Canada. 

Without permanent status, the threat of deportation hangs over any worker who dares complain about abusive conditions, making workers vulnerable and hostage to their employers’ demands.

“What we’ve had over the past two decades is a series of tweaks here and there which try to sharpen or smooth off some of the rough edges of the temporary worker program,” Faraday said. “There hasn’t been anything that has addressed fundamentally the way in which the laws we have create precariousness and exploitation of workers.”

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada spokesperson Julie Lafortune counters that changes have been made to the program to protect workers. She said in an email that as of 2019, foreign workers with an employer-specific work permit are able to apply for an open work permit if they are being mistreated by their current employer.

As well, in September 2022, IRCC and ESDC announced amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations concerning TFWs, which mandated that employers provide all TFWs with information about their rights in Canada and prohibited punishment by employers against workers who bring up complaints.

Enforcement of the rules is rare. But last June, Scotlynn Growers — an Ontario farm where a COVID-19 outbreak claimed the life of a migrant worker — was convicted of violating workplace safety laws. The farm pleaded guilty to one count of failing to take all reasonable precautions to protect a worker and will be fined $125,000.

Syed Hussan, executive director of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, is not convinced that workers are truly protected. He says TFWs in Canada date all the way back to Chinese railroad workers in the 1880s and before, but “we just didn’t call them that.”

“The excuse of a labour shortage is just one of the reasons that are being used to justify the program and to access cheap labour,” Hussan said.

Economists and activists say a worker crisis is developing as the program balloons, creating a surge of cheap labour which disincentivizes companies from raising wages and improving conditions.

“We don’t have a labour shortage. We have a wage shortage because people aren’t being offered the wages they are looking for to take certain jobs,” said Sheila Block, a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

“What we’re seeing is workers for the first time in decades have a great deal of bargaining power with employers, and that has the potential to improve wages and conditions,” Block said.

“But rather than increase wages and shift the way workers would be organized, the government has instead agreed to increase the number of low-wage workers who have very limited rights.”

Block stressed that foreign labour is not taking any jobs away from Canadians and the solution to protect migrant workers is to grant them permanent status or open work permits at the very least.

“This is not an argument against expanding immigration. It’s an argument against the elements of this policy that create a second tier of workers,” Block said. “We should not bring people into this country to work without providing them with status.”

Claudia, 48, who came to Canada from Mexico in 2021 to work in a lobster shop in New Brunswick, agrees that giving foreign workers the same rights and pay as resident workers is the solution. 

“Many of my friends who I lived with over the last year can’t speak English or have access to a computer. It’s a very sad situation because you don’t have someone who can help you or explain the rules,” Claudia said.

She worked 12-hour shifts, cleaning, weighing, sorting and packaging frozen lobster tails. During the peak summer months, Claudia said worked without any weekends for three months straight.

“When I was sick, they told me to just take a pill and keep working,” Claudia said. “When we come here we don’t know if it’s legal so we just follow the rules or what they tell us.”

Claudia hopes one day she’ll be able to get permanent status in Canada.

“I like Canada. I pay taxes like everybody. I make the economy of the province better, so why don’t I have the same rights?”

Source: Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker program is ballooning to fill the labour gap, but workers say they’re abused and poorly paid. Is that the solution we want?

Ontario’s population will surge by 30% in just over 20 years, according to StatsCan. Experts say we’re not ready

No serious questioning of the assumptions behind the study and those quoted whether this growth will be beneficial or not, and that many demographers disagree with the premise that large scale immigration will materially affect an aging population.

And of course, the experience over the past number of years have shown governments woefully inadequate in addressing healthcare, infrastructure and other programs to serve a growing population:

Ontario’s population is expected to experience sustained growth over the next two decades, but the province may not have the infrastructure to support the booming — and aging — population, some experts warn. 

The number of residents in the province could climb to more than 19 million by 2043, an increase of about 30 per cent since 2021, according to new projections from Statistics Canada. 

That figure is based on a forecast of medium growth, outlined in a report released Monday, which laid out various population projections for the coming decades. The province’s population, which sits at 14.8 million as of 2021, could surpass 21.0 million by 2043. 

But Ontario is ill-prepared to handle the growth, as it lacks the housing and general infrastructure to support the growing population, especially in major urban centres like Toronto, some experts say. 

“It’s obvious: we’re not prepared,” said Phil Soper, president and CEO of Royal LePage. “We can’t even handle the population growth we’ve had over the past 20 years — as households get small, people live longer and immigration numbers rise — let alone potential growth in the two decades to come.”

The lack of affordable housing and planning for population growth in Toronto could hamper the city’s future economic potential, said Sheila Block, senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. She noted livability and sustainability are top-of-mind for both residents and investors. 

“If we don’t increase the supply of affordable housing, people will be living in substandard housing,” she said. “We are going to see more people under-housed.”

The city is already living with the consequences of improper planning and a growing population, said Block, who pointed to the crisis in affordable housing

“We need to talk about a sustainable future, a future where we see less damage from climate change and more equity,” she said. “Those are the kinds of issues that have to be considered, and affordable housing is one piece of that pie.”

Soper believes federal and provincial governments will soon be forced to address the crisis and “move aggressively” to support the population increase.

“The growth will force mandated densification laws, where community groups won’t be allowed to hold up the creation of housing because they don’t like it,” he predicted. 

The growth of Ontario’s population, along with that of Canada, as a whole, will largely be driven by immigration, noted Patrice Dion, a demographer with Statistics Canada. In 2021, when Canada’s border largely reopened, the country accepted more than 400,000 immigrants, representing 87.4 per cent of the country’s population-growth that year. 

While Soper and Block say Ontario isn’t prepared for the growth, they also say sustained immigration is necessary to address another key concern: an aging population. 

The country will need to rely on immigration to boost its cohort of working-age Canadians, because the natural growth rate (the number of births minus deaths) continues to decrease, said Block. 

“If you look at countries like Italy or Japan, which have broken immigration systems — Japan has been a very isolated country and it’s very challenging to become a citizen and Italy isn’t that much different — they’re going to face the kind of challenges Canada will, but to a much greater extent,” said Soper.

While Statistics Canada’s population projections vary widely — the different forecasts are based on a variety of factors, including fertility rates, life expectancy and immigration numbers — one thing is almost certain: Canada is expected to experience explosive growth in its cohort of older seniors, while the proportion of children in the country is expected to decline. 

More than 25 per cent of the population will be 65 or older by 2068, up from 18.5 per cent in 2021. Meanwhile, the number of Canadians above 85 may increase more than threefold over that period, from 871,000 in 2021 to 3.2 million in 2068. 

Canada will need to examine how it cares for its seniors, as more people join the group, said Bonnie-Jeanne MacDonald, director of financial security research at the National Institute on aging. 

“Over the next decade, we’re going to start seeing massive numbers of people needing care,” she said. 

“There’s going be a lot more of us being asked to care for seniors. The prospects to meet that challenge are not good,” said MacDonald, who noted the supports for seniors quickly fell apart during the pandemic. 

Source: Ontario’s population will surge by 30% in just over 20 years, according to StatsCan. Experts say we’re not ready

‘Colour-coded’ retirement security: Study finds economic marginalization and inequity follow people into old age

Not surprising but useful confirmation:

Indigenous and racialized seniors have much lower retirement incomes and higher poverty rates than their white counterparts, which a new study says reflects how economic marginalization and inequity follows people into their old age.

Overall, white Canadian seniors enjoy the most retirement security with an average yearly income at $42,800, way above the $32,200 for their peers in the Indigenous communities and $29,200 for visible minorities over the age of 65.

Based on 2016 census data, the report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found 13.7 per cent of white seniors lived in poverty compared to 21.5 per cent among Indigenous seniors and 19.8 per cent among racialized seniors, according to the Low Income Measure After Tax or LIM-AT.

Hence, it’s not surprising that seniors from marginalized groups have to count on public pensions and benefits to make up for lagging retirement incomes, says the study, titled “Colour-coded Retirement,” released Wednesday.

“The data reveal that there are real consequences of economic marginalization and systemic racism. Elders and seniors are financially insecure in retirement, if they can retire at all, because the opportunities for saving are so limited,” says Hayden King, a report co-author and executive editor of the Yellowhead Institute, a First Nation-led research centre.

Senior white Canadians, who made up 85 per cent of the senior population in the country, have the most diverse sources of income of all groups.

About a third of their income comes from public pension sources such as the Canada and Quebec Pension Plans, Old Age Security (OAS), and the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS); a third from retirement contributions to work and individual pension plans; and the rest from investment and employment earnings as well as other sources.

In comparison, public pension accounts for 47 per cent of Indigenous seniors’ and 40 per cent of racialized seniors’ retirement income, respectively.

These two groups — accounting for 14.8 per cent of the population over age 65 in Canada — had less money to draw from their employers’ pension plan and own retirement savings, or investment income. They were more likely to rely on employment income.

RPPs and RRSPs account for a third of white seniors’ retirement income, versus 25 per cent for Indigenous seniors and 21 per cent for racialized seniors.

On the whole, racialized Canadian households have less spare money to contribute to those plans than white Canadian households. And when they do, their contributions are lower.

Chinese households were an exception with an average contribution of $10,000 in 2015, which was higher than the $7,600 contribution made by white households. In comparison, Black families only made a $4,600 average contribution.

“The overall low share of the racialized and Indigenous population that contribute to RPPs points to reduced retirement security for the next generation of workers,” the report warned.

Among racial minority groups, retirement incomes also vary among those who were born in Canada versus those who are immigrants.

While only 3 per cent of Chinese seniors and 1 per cent of South Asian seniors are Canadian-born, their average retirement income is higher than their immigrant peers.

In the case of Black Canadians, however, being Canadian-born offers no income advantage.

“Canadian-born Black seniors’ income is virtually identical to that of Black immigrants, with the result that Canadian-born Black seniors’ average income continues to be 25 per cent lower than Canadian-born white seniors’ income,” said the report.

“This provides us with insight into the continuing impact of anti-Black racism on seniors’ income.”

The study also shows the differences between First Nations, Métis and Inuit seniors’ income, as well as their respective contributions to RPPs and RRSPs.

First Nations seniors have the lowest average income of any Indigenous group, at $33,500 for men and $26,300 for women, followed by their Inuit ($39,900 and $32,150) and Métis ($41,765 and $28,285) counterparts. Métis seniors were most likely to contribute to private pension and retirement savings plans, while their First Nations peers had the lowest participation rate.

Researchers said there is also a consistent gender gap with senior women of all demographic backgrounds having lower retirement incomes and higher poverty rates than senior men.

The study found the overall racialized senior population’s total income averaged $33,900 for men and $25,000 for women. While visible minority male seniors’ average income is 36 per cent lower than their white male counterparts, senior racialized women’s average income is 26 per cent below their white female peers.

“It is only when the economic impacts of underlying racism and sexism are addressed that we will achieve equal access to a secure retirement for all,” said the 49-page report, funded by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation

It said the data shows that GIS and OAS pension — both adopted as anti-poverty measures — are crucial sources of income for senior women who are First Nations or racialized immigrants.

The increase in OAS by the federal Liberal government for those 75 and older in the 2021 federal budget is a step in the right direction to narrow retirement income disparities, said the study.

It recommends measures to eliminate barriers to equitable employment opportunities and increased access to workplace-based pension plans and retirement savings

Source: ‘Colour-coded’ retirement security: Study finds economic marginalization and inequity follow people into old age