Commentary: U.S. temporary worker program could backfire

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Canada and the U.S. have had concerns about agricultural labor, and the Canadian government put in place a more lenient temporary foreign worker program than the U.S. But as should be expected, those outside agricultural businesses have found loop holes to use the program in a way that stretched the guidelines—all legal but not in tune with the essence of the original legislation.

Because the original temporary foreign worker program was not being used as intended, the Canadian government announced tighter rules this week. First indications are that it won’t affect agricultural workers as much as other business operations. Unlocking the connection between low-skilled agricultural workers and low-skilled fast-food restaurant workers is a concern that had to be addressed, but no reports this week have explained how the ag labor aspect of the legislation is faring.

Canadian business operations were caught trying to pay the least possible for untrained labor and displacing local labor, which would normally command higher wages. Canada’s national unemployment rate is 7 percent, according to Reuters news service.

Even with tighter rules for temporary foreign workers, the debate has swung from helping agricultural operations to not letting in any unskilled labor and having the worker program only available for skilled labor.

Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan told a news conference that what is really needed is to stop bringing in unskilled workers because pizza and burger shops aren’t finding the labor they need because they refuse to pay enough.

“The solution is to increase wages, not to open the flood gates through the temporary foreign worker program,” McGowan said as reported by Reuters.

The news agency also quoted New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair as telling Parliament, “Their (employer) message is still work for less, or you’ll be replaced.”

A couple of the outlandish uses of the foreign worker program uncovered kept Canadians from being hired by companies. A Chinese-owned company listed a requirement for employees to speak the Manadrin language for 200 jobs at a coal mine, and Canada’s largest bank used temporary foreign workers to replace existing staff because they could pay the foreigners less.

In the U.S., agricultural workers are paid relatively low wages for hard labor in uncomfortable weather conditions, but research and experimental programs have shown that somewhat higher wages don’t keep U.S. citizens working in fields and orchards.

The Canadian experience shows that legislation needs to be well crafted to provide a guest workforce where such employees are needed, not where it simply is economically beneficial to the employer.     

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