A recent article in the Vancouver Sun (20 April, 2011, “Are there too many foreign workers?”, by David Green, page A11) argues that Canada should be more reluctant to make use of temporary foreign workers (TFW) to meet talent shortages in the Canadian economy. David is an economics professor at UBC and an associate of the Canadian Centre for Policy alternatives (often thought of a left of centre counter research organization to the Fraser Institute). Davids concerns and arguement include:
- The remarkable growth and reliance on TFW since 2004 (from 112,543 to 192,281  a 57% increase.
- Canada admits close to 3* TFW as it does immigrants under the conventional “Economic class”.
- The remarkable increase in “Elemental and Labourers” from 2005 to 2009 is 400%.
- The list of TFW eligible occupations in Alberta and BC include janitors and food counter workers.
- The moderating/depressing effect on wages by using so many TFW. Apparently real wages for high school or less educated workers starting a new job declined by about 20% between 1980 and the mid 2000s. Why should we support this situation – the economy won’t stop if their wages rise.
- The tenuous nature of labour rights for TFW.
- Bringing in skilled workers (e.g., pipefitters and carpenters) reduces the ROI of investing in those occupations.
- These consequences and concerns mean that we should have much more of a public debate on the policy and practices.
There are any number of places to begin to comment on Green’s argumentation and concerns. First though, I agree that if there are wide spread concerns about any public policy it is reasonable to ask that they be debated.
My main concern is there is a lot of supposition without any sense of evidence to support several of the claims (there may be evidence but it is not alluded to to) in the areas of reduce ROI on investing in skilling up people, how systemic or serious are TFW being exploited or abused (yes I have read the various press exposes on the subject – so I acknowledge that it apparently happens). The connection to using TFW in low skill occupations resulting in a 20% reduction in real wages (over 20years) seems a stretch given that many other factors could be at play and fully explain this result.
My main interest in this subject is that as a TM consultant I have the propensity to recommend to my clients that when they have a significant TM uncertainty and risk issue in their organization there is a prudent practice of having at least three active strategies to “cover it”. There will be a primary strategy (expected to deal with at least 80% of the concerns and two companion strategies that enable the client to deal with the unexpected and the volatility in the market place and/or the level of talent related activity within the organization.
Use of TFW is an option that can be used for any of the three strategies. I am aware of a number of occupations (often low skilled) that cannot be filled (especially in the food production and hospitality type industries. I recall with some irony the fuss a couple of years ago within the USA about the number of illegal Mexicans in the country. There was much posturing and histrionics spouted for several months until it became well understood that the agriculture business in California would virtually come to a standstill if all the illegals were sent packing. So having lower paying occupations go unfilled may not bring the country to its knees, but it can decimate an industry or local economy.
Any change to a public policy should be done with full appreciation for the primary, secondary and tertiary consequences. And to suggest that we should encourage increases in costs due to policy induced resource restrictions should never be taken lightly. Let those who would be on the receiving side of the impacts have some voice too.