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Is the solution to our labour shortage more foreign workers? Businesses say yes, others say it’s a way to fill vacancies without raising wages

Is the solution to our labour shortage more foreign workers? Businesses say yes, others say it’s a way to fill vacancies without raising wages
Business
As worker shortages persist and government subsidies approach their end, a growing number of industry groups — largely in food services — are asking the federal government to let them host more temporary foreign workers to fill jobs.

Last month the Canadian Meat Council began lobbying the federal government to relax its limit on how many temporary foreign workers can work at a Canadian meat processor, asking for the current cap of 10 to 20 per cent of workers to be raised to 30 per cent.

Restaurants Canada, the national food-services industry association, has called on the government to increase federal funding for immigration of potential restaurant workers, and to extend work visas under Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

Already, in Quebec, the federal government has agreed to expand the program in certain hard-hit sectors, where employers will be allowed to increase their intake of temporary foreign workers in low-wage positions to 20 per cent, up from 10 per cent.

Economists and labour experts expect to see this kind of pressure grow in the coming months as employers with high job vacancies look to stay afloat post-pandemic.

The federal government’s key pandemic support programs are set to expire in a week, including the widely used Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy for businesses to cover worker salaries. Meanwhile, businesses in sectors like food services are facing a chronic shortage of workers that to fill positions.

Soon enough, businesses that typically rely on cheap labour to fuel their operations could find themselves filing for bankruptcy if they can’t cover worker costs, said Philip Cross, a senior economist at the MacDonald-Laurier Institute.

“Those low-wage business models just aren’t going to work in this current environment. If wages go up, then prices are going to go up, and some of those businesses will go under,” Cross said.

Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program has long been used as a controversial work-around for low-wage businesses to keep job vacancies low without raising wages. The program offers temporary, closed employment permits to a capped number of foreign workers who occupy low-skilled jobs in sectors where job vacancies are high, before returning to their country of origin.

The system has been the subject of several audits and investigations that have found rampant workplace abuse and safety hazard concerns that have brought into question the basic human rights afforded to migrant workers .

A federal audit in 2017 found that the program was rife with oversight problems that let lower-paid international workers take jobs that unemployed Canadians could fill, effectively allowing companies to build a business model on lower-than-legal wages.

Syed Hussan, executive director of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, says the program permits workers to be subject to exploitative conditions by tying their right to be in the country with an annual contract from a single employer.

“You can’t speak out against a bad boss without risking being made homeless, being kicked out of the country, or not being able to work for anyone else. The laws have constructed this precariousness,” Hussan said.

A recent analysis from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that the sectors with the highest job-vacancy rates during the pandemic are also those with the lowest hourly wages. That includes food services and drinking places, accommodation services, crop production and the amusement and gambling industries.

“Those might be the sectors that turn to temporary foreign workers as a way of filling jobs without having to increase wages,” said David Macdonald, a senior economist with the CCPA and author of the analysis.

Canada’s meat processors are facing an average job-vacancy rate of more than 10 per cent, according to the Canadian Meat Council, as more than 4,000 butcher stations sit empty at production facilities countrywide.

The latest labour-force survey shows that employment in food services is 14.8 per cent below its pre-pandemic level, in February 2020 and never returned.

The same CCPA analysis found that many of those workers left the industry altogether, opting for jobs with higher pay and stable hours in professional-services jobs in accounting offices or law firms.

“It’s more evident that the workers who used to work in food and accommodation simply aren’t there anymore. It’s not that they’re staying at home, it’s that they’ve moved onto other industries, and that could lead some of those employers to want to expand the temporary foreign workers program,” Macdonald said.
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