Tuna processing in Atlantic Canada

A full-scale review of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which allows Canadian employers to hire foreign nationals to fill labour shortages in Canada, appears imminent. MaryAnn Mihychuk, the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour in the Liberal government of Canada, has said that she will ask a parliamentary committee for proposals to optimize the program.

“I think it is timely for a serious review of the whole program,” stated Ms. Mihychuk. “We would like to put it forward to a House committee to review, and there are issues on this program from coast to coast to coast.”

Reforms that came into effect in June, 2014 were passed by the former Conservative government. These reforms limit foreign workers to 10 per cent of a company’s work force in low-paying jobs, and prohibit employers from hiring them in regions of high unemployment. In most communities with an unemployment rate above 6 per cent, companies cannot qualify for the program if hiring workers at a wage below the regional median for the given position.

The 2014 reforms were brought in principally in response to a number of high-profile cases in which certain Canadian employers allegedly abused the program. While the Liberals criticized the Conservative government’s handling of the program both before and after the reforms, specific reforms to the program did not form part of the 2015 Liberal Party election platform.

The clamour to make further reforms in response to existing and projected labour market needs comes largely from the Liberals' Atlantic caucus. All seats in Atlantic Canada in the 2015 general election went to Liberals, and MPs from the region are pressing hard for changes, saying the restrictions hurt seasonal businesses and the service sector.

Rodger Cuzner, a Liberal MP representing a Nova Scotia riding, said the program needs to be overhauled to take into account the demands of seasonal businesses. Mr Cuzner is also Minister Mihychuk’s parliamentary secretary, 

“Changes over the last couple of years have impacted seasonal industries. We still generate over 50 per cent of the regional GDP through seasonal industries. The work force is getting older. The out-migration is significant,” said Mr Cuzner.

Yvonne Jones, the Liberal MP from Labrador, added that the the program in its current guise hurts regional tourism and fish processing industries, making it difficult to get seasonal labour.

“Because of the fact we are unable to recruit under the temporary foreign worker program, we have seen a lot of businesses having to close or scale back their hours and days of operations. This is really affecting services to communities that need that service,” said Ms Jones.

Ms. Mihychuk said the review by the Commons employment committee needs to encompass every sector of the economy, including the impact of the collapse in oil prices across the country. “You look at the massive layoffs in Alberta, it’s really changing the labour market,” she said.

The Liberals also believe a more tangible pathway to citizenship is needed for foreign workers, many of whom wish to remain in Canada and establish their lives in the country.