The Rotten Temporary Foreign Worker Mess

temporary workers

Much ado has been made about the Trout River beached whale, but the best pound of insight over the ordeal has got to come from Wayne Ledwell — whale expert.

“No one wants to go touch them … everything becomes gooey and slippery and you can’t stand up on the whale and it gets on your boots and you can’t get the smell off and then you go home and the dog rolls in it and you get it in your kitchen and you curse the whales, and you curse the government and … it becomes a mess.”

That brilliant quote, care of Jane Taber.

And, at the risk of stretching out my metaphors, Mr. Ledwell’s dead whale wisdom quite aptly sums up the national story that overshadowed even then ticking time of a water mammal.

The portfolio with all the political magnetism of a decomposing whale carcass.

Temporary Foreign Workers.

Thanks to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporations full-throated they-took-our-jobs mentality of weeks late, the political issue of the come-from-aways doing our jobs has again managed to consolidate a dizzying amount of airtime.

And the thing about the story is that, once it gets on your boots, you can’t get the smell off.

That’s what happened to Jason Kenney.  He got pulled right into the slimy blubber, alongside John Betts, that caricature of CEO who called the allegations of his Cruella de Vil-style operations at McDonalds: “bullshit.”

But being in bed with Scrooge is unavoidable.

Fact is, whoever is in government will be forced to muck around in the unpleasant business of bringing in low-skill foreign workers to come work on Canadian job sites.  It’s a reality.  Canada is a great big farm with a tundra toque and a total lack of, not just workers, but workers who are willing to put down their Aristotle, pick up a hoe and till the fields.

We’ve got about 200,000 agricultural operations going on country-wide, and a vast shortfall of farmhands.  So, every year, we bring in thousands of temporary foreign workers to till the fields and whatnot — the number is growing, too, and probably surpassed 40,000 workers in 2013.

And those tend to be in areas of high unemployment — Cape Breton, for example.

Of course, on first blush, shipping Jamaicans into the EI capital of Canada seems not only counter-intuitive, but downright offensive.  On the other hand, not many of those ex-miners are willing to go harvest pick strawberries for ten bucks an hour.

It would be even stranger a fit to have those chiseled pick-axe-wielders to become live-in caregivers.

To that end, it’s not quite fair to say that we have a skills shortage — it’s closer to say we have a skills mismatch, but it’s closer still to say that we have a skills surplus.  Our laid-off workers, once our competitive advantage, are now surplused and unusable in those jobs that still need doing.  Our younger workers are too well educated, and are rushing headlong into the rising wages of the sciences and service sectors.  But even as our up-and-comers and our down-and-outs turn away jobs, those jobs still need doing.

Some, too, forget — through wilful amnesia or genuine misinformation — that most foreign workers need to get the a-okay by way of Labour Market Opinion from Ottawa.  That permit is essentially a recognition that bringing in the foreigner is not taking the job of a Canadian.

Then there’s the fact that the majority of temporary foreign workers are not the Honduran housemaid that our minds immediately conjure up.

For example, nearly half of Canada’s temporary workers (which number about 210,000) you’d probably never recognize — they’re English, American, French, German, Australian, etc.  Many (about 14%) end up here without much bureaucratic to-do, thanks to our international agreements, just as many of our compatriots end up over there.

Then there’re those who come here due to “Canadian interests.”  They tend to be professors, charitable workers, spouses of those who’ve come here under another program, entrepreneurs, or experts in their field whom the government deems to be of such benefit to Canada that they need not be subject to an LMO.  They account for 48% of those temporary workers coming into Canada.  Then there’s a smattering of artists and technology workers that are generally separate from those other programs.

The remaining 38% are those temporary foreigner workers that dance in our heads — the Mexican farmhand and the Trinidadian nanny.  They are all subject to the LMOs.

But all that is quite difficult to get through, isn’t it?  As such, Jason Kenney dug his fingers into the opposition parties, pulling them into the rotting mess, suggesting that they’re more than happy to bash the program when they’re riding a horse named political expediency, but that they come begging him for foreign workers whenever they get a phone call from a possible voter.

And then the dog rolls in it.

The Liberals, who’ve been calling for more transparency on the program, are not wrong.  More statistics and data would be greatly helpful.

But some of the Liberal exceptionalism is a tad hyperbolic.

Take Justin Trudeau’s opening salvo in a day-long debate on the program that took place Tuesday:

“I liken the government’s management of the temporary foreign worker program to a reckless driver because, starting in 2006, it continuously had the accelerator on the floor and mushroomed the number of temporary foreign workers to the point where they went from about 100,000 to 215,000.”

Those numbers are incorrect, for what it’s worth.  In 2006, there were 138,000 foreign workers.  But, hey, what’s 38,000 people, between friends?

But let’s put that number in context: the labour force, in the same period, grew by more than 1.5 million people — about a 9% increase over 2006.

So I’m not sure that Stephen Harper was careening towards the cliff, here.

But while the Liberals, the granddaddies of the program, have actually donned themselves in nuance, the NDP have gone full boar on the belief that there is no problem to fix.

Insisting that the Conservatives simply haven’t looked for unemployed Canadians hard enough, the NDP have slammed their fist on the table about the problem — despite, as the Minister loves to note, when businesses in their riding need some cheap labour — and have pivoted back to that old union hymnal that any work is good work for a Canadian.  They figure that those retired miners and laid-off automotive workers should be the ones filling these vacancies.  Fact is, that never happens.

There are problems, no doubt.

A C.D. Howe report does note that the Conservatives’ plan on Temporary Foreign Workers may have been reckless in the intervening years between sheepishness and wisdom.

And Mike Moffatt notes that a lack of data has hobbled some intelligent policy thought on the matter.

But that’s not as sexy as CBC’s call-and-refrain: “How Canada became addicted to temporary foreign workers.”

To this end, it’s incredible that such a non-story has dominated the headlines.  And let’s make no mistake — it’s a non story.  There’s a policy debate to be had here, but a few anecdotes of the laid-off McDonald’s manager or the Israeli staffing a mall kiosk do not mismanagement make.  There isn’t much proof beyond those isolated cases that the system is any worse than it was three, five, or ten years ago.

Nevertheless, washing the sticky smell of the file is near impossible.  It gets all over your kitchen.

And you curse the whales.

And you curse the government.



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Follow Justin Ling on twitter: @Justin_Ling


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