Let’s have an honest conversation on how Canada can improve its temporary foreign worker policies


Authored by the Canadian Immigration Lawyers Association (CILA).

Note: This article is meant to stimulate dialogue on this topic. It does not represent the views of all CILA members. CILA strongly recommends the Canadian government consult widely to determine the best path forward.

In a recent interview with Bloomberg, Canada’s Immigration Minister Marc Miller stated employers have become “addicted” to temporary foreign workers and he is considering reforms as a result.

There is no question that Canada should pursue foreign worker policies that protect the domestic workforce and promote economic development. It is not in Canada’s interests to see foreign workers displace domestic workers and drive down wages. The goal is for foreign workers to complement Canadian ones to support stronger living standards across the country.

There is also no question that foreign worker policies–just like policies in all areas–should be periodically reviewed to ensure they are achieving their objectives and are benefitting Canadians. 

But to do this, we need to have an honest conversation.

One of the major sources of Canada’s foreign workers are international students. There was a time when Canada would not allow international students to work off-campus during their studies, before this policy was amended to allow them to work up to 20 hours per week off-campus while studying, and full-time during scheduled breaks such as the summer and winter holidays. The rationale is international students can support themselves financially in Canada, while remaining focused on their studies, gain Canadian work experience, and employers can benefit from their talents and labour. 

In 2022, however, the Canadian government announced it would allow international students to work full-time even while studying to help alleviate labour shortages. This policy remains in place and is set to end in April. Some 684,000 study permits took effect in 2023–an increase of 25 per cent compared to the nearly 550,000 that took effect in 2022. While the off-campus work exemptions do not apply to most of these international students, these figures highlight the staggering number of international students the Canadian government allowed into the country and potentially into the labour market. 

In addition, the vast majority of foreign workers are welcomed by Canada under a pathway that does not require Canadian employers to demonstrate they have genuine labour shortages and that there are no Canadians to do the job. This pathway, known as the International Mobility Program (IMP), accounted for 768,000 work permits that took effect in 2023–an increase of 64 per cent year-over-year. Again, it exists due to the Canadian government’s broad policy objectives, not due to employers looking to import cheap labour. Canada issues IMP work permits for a host of economic, social and cultural reasons. For instance, many of the work permits issued since 2022 have been for humanitarian purposes to assist Ukrainians fleeing war. Other examples include issuing IMP work permits because of youth mobility agreements with peer nations, asylum claimants, and to keep families together.

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), which requires employers to prove no Canadian is available to do the job, accounted for some 185,000 work permits that took effect in 2023–a 37 per cent increase compared to 2022. In other words, the TFWP comprised about 19 per cent of all new work permits issued in 2023, and an even smaller share if we count the new international students who entered the labour market last year. In addition, the TFWP accounted for less than 1 per cent of Canada’s labour force. This shows that the TFWP is working somewhat as intended, given it is meant to be used by employers as a last resort. It is also worth pointing out many of those admitted under the TFWP work in agriculture, a sector which research shows struggles to attract Canadian workers, and so the TFWP comprises a fraction of a per cent for all other sectors of the economy, including crucial ones such as healthcare.

Thus, it does not stand up to scrutiny for the government to blame employers for accessing foreign workers when it is the same government that has allowed more foreign workers, and international students into Canada, and also allowed international students to work more hours, even while they have been admitted to Canada predominantly on the basis of furthering their education here. To be clear, the Canadian Immigration Lawyers Association is supportive of allowing genuine international students to work off-campus part-time during their studies. What we are against, however, is government blaming stakeholders–employers in this case–when it is the government itself that has significantly increased Canada’s supply of foreign nationals eligible to work temporarily. Such blame is not conducive to forming more effective policies. Moreover, it is not conducive for the government to accuse employers of being addicted to foreign talent on the one hand, while lamenting on the other hand when employers do not hire newcomers (e.g., due to a lack of “Canadian experience”).

This is not to say the system is perfect. Here are CILA’s suggestions on foreign worker reform:

  • It is essential for IRCC and ESDC to consult widely to determine the best path forward. This entails speaking with key groups such as economists, employers, sector bodies, labour and human rights groups, colleges and universities, newcomers themselves, and others to develop evidence-based insights that can shape effective foreign worker policies.
  • IRCC and ESDC also need to keep in mind that access to talent is key to attracting investment in Canada. Multinational corporations in particular are hesitant to make major investments if they view the policy landscape to be uncertain and if rules and border officials create obstacles to smooth and timely entry of labour to support business expansion. Hence, key to successful reform is balancing between preserving the integrity of our work permit policies without having a chilling effect on the business investments Canada relies on to support its high living standards.
  • Ensure that a one-size-fit-all approach is not used in order to avoid penalizing sectors and employers with a demonstrated need for more workers, and who have a reputation of adhering to IRCC and ESDC rules. 
  • Identify how to strengthen protections and recourse for foreign workers vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers. One way this can be done, for example, is by expediting the processing of open work permit applications made by vulnerable workers.
  • Strengthen the integrity of the international student program by returning to the policy where off-campus work is only permitted part-time while class is in session.
  • Continue with efforts to expedite work permit processing for trusted employers who are in good standing with the government, and who have made significant investments in the Canadian economy but who continue to have genuine labour shortages. The Canadian government’s Global Skills Strategy is widely regarded as a success and it is a model that can be replicated for other sectors and occupations. While the new Recognized Employer Pilot is welcome, its restrictive eligibility criteria limits its potential to support Canada’s economic growth.
  • Explore ways of introducing more checks and balances to prevent the abuse of the TFWP, such as annually reviewing the percentage of total workers under the TFWP that are employed by sector and region.

CILA welcomes the federal government’s review of its foreign worker policies and believes it is possible to balance integrity without undermining Canada’s economic interests. Wide consultations with experts such as economists and other stakeholders can best enable the federal government to strike this balance.

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