NAFTA: The fight to keep skilled labour flowing

February 7th, 2018

Since it came into effect in 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement has helped countless employers in Canada, the United States and Mexico gain access to professional labour from all three countries.

In Canada’s case, NAFTA lets businesses here hire skilled American and Mexican workers in more than 60 professional categories on temporary work permits. NAFTA allows them to do so without having to first perform a time-consuming Labour Market Impact Assessment, or LMIA, to prove no Canadian can fill the position.

Work permits provided under NAFTA can be issued on the spot at the border, are good for up to three years, and there is no limit on the number of times they can be renewed. The same rule applies for Canadians in these occupational categories who are hired by employers in the United States and Mexico.

Given its benefits for employers in all three countries, you’d think a businessman like U.S. President Donald Trump would steer clear of killing NAFTA. Well, think again.

President Trump ran for office on a promise to not only renegotiate or even scrap trade deals that he claims are bad for the United States and its workers, but also to reduce immigration in order to keep jobs in American hands. With NAFTA now being renegotiated at his behest, there are many who fear its liberal labour mobility rules could help seal its fate. So far, President Trump has yet to target immigrants working in the US under NAFTA “TN” visas like he has holders of the famous H-1B visa. Yet many Canadians and Mexicans working in the U.S. under NAFTA exemptions are justifiably worried that could soon change.

Modernizing NAFTA

Meanwhile, guided by the Trump Administration’s “Buy American, Hire American” agenda, U.S. negotiators have so far resisted Canada’s call to update labour mobility rules under NAFTA to include digital occupations that didn’t exist in 1994. The only computer-related occupation currently on the list is Computer Systems Analyst. Updating the list, the Canadians argue, would simplify the hiring process and allow hi-tech companies in all three NAFTA countries to fill chronic labour shortages with imported talent. That’s not only good for business — it’s good for the economy.

Fortunately, Canadian negotiators aren’t the only ones who see the benefit of strengthening and modernizing NAFTA — it’s a position that also has powerful proponents in the United States, including the U.S Chamber of Commerce.

In a speech in Ottawa just weeks after Trump’s inauguration last year, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas J. Donohue assured his audience that preserving NAFTA and modernizing the occupations it covers were shared priorities. “If we don’t update and expand some of these categories—especially those in the science and tech sectors—we risk shutting out high-skilled talent needed to innovate and grow our economies,” he said. “We stand ready to work with the White House to ensure that [immigration] programs allow America’s diverse economy to attract — not shut out — the variety of workers we need to grow and compete.”

This is a need that exists as much in the United States as it does in Canada. U.S. tech hubs like Seattle and Silicon Valley rely on Canadian and Mexican talent accessed through NAFTA as well as H-1B holders from other countries. By shutting down the free flow of such highly skilled international labour, the effect on America’s ability to compete globally would not be insignificant.

Meanwhile, Canada and its provinces are doing the right thing by facilitating employer access to skilled international labour through innovative programs like the Global Talent Stream. Whatever President Trump decides to do with NAFTA, Canada needs to ensure it has the programs and policies in place to keep skilled talent flowing northward. Our businesses, and our economy, depend on it.

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