|Minister of Quick Fixes|
When employers can't find workers at a time of high unemployment, we've got a problem. Filling those vacant spots with guest workers is a low-cost fix, one that does nothing to solve our problem, perhaps even rendering it more intractable.
Currently, more than 330,000 workers live and work in Canada as part of the federal temporary foreign worker program — a number that has nearly tripled over the last 10 years, with the bulk of those job-seekers going west in search of work.
The program was originally designed to attract skilled employees, agricultural workers and live-in caregivers in order to address temporary labour shortages. The emphasis shifted in 2002 to low-skilled workers, such as those in the food and beverage industry, construction and retail.
The federal government's decision to open the program to lower-skill occupations came in response to pressure from employers, said Jason Foster, an Athabasca University academic co-ordinator who has researched the program's transformation.
"There was no evidence of any particular labour shortage in those occupations at the time," Foster said. "It was simply a matter of trying to provide these employers with other labour supply options in terms of how to address their labour concerns."
Today, most provincial governments and our federal government operate like political Chambers of Commerce. We have morphed into a "what business wants, business gets" world. One thing that business always wants is to improve the bottom line, the profit margin, and one thing that can really boost profits is to pay really low wages, preferably the uber-low sort that guest workers get.
Sure government sets a floor for guest worker wages at 10% less than the market wage but it's like a death by a thousand cuts. Guest workers lower the market wage incrementally and from there on it's a race to the bottom.
...employers have become addicted to the program, said labour economist Erin Weir.
"Temporary foreign workers are tied to the specific job and the specific employer," he said. "It's often very convenient for employers to have people who they know aren't going to be able to take other jobs, and have little ability to push for better wages."
Critics of the program say it undermines the natural economic forces in Canada's job market by artificially filling low-paid, low-skill positions and removing the impetus for higher wage demands.
The worker shortage problem is worst, naturally, in Alberta where the provincial government has a rich history of so mismanaging its bitumen wealth as to overheat the economy. When prices skyrocket in a boom, even unskilled workers need commensurately greater wages just to stay above water. Employers don't want to pay that to hamburger flippers, not when they can fall back on cheap foreign labour.
Unfortunately we live in an era in which governments routinely go for the quick fix, preferring to kick problems - and their solutions - down the road for someone else to deal with.
We need a new politics for Canada. Not just a change of parties but a major change in the way we consent to be governed.