Prime Minister Trudeau failed to follow his own advice on temporary foreign workers

In 2014, Trudeau wrote an op-ed excoriating the government for the growth of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program
Temporary foreign workers from Mexico plant strawberries on a farm in Mirabel, Que., Wednesday, May 6, 2020. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press.

Massive growth in Canada’s non-permanent resident streams of immigration (including temporary foreign workers and international students) has led to growing calls on the Trudeau government to reform the system. Immigration Minister Marc Miller recently announced a two-year reduction to student visas. The government has so far been silent on possible reforms to the temporary foreign workers stream. 

One unlikely source of advice on such reforms might be Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself. In 2014, the then-Liberal Party leader wrote a scathing op-ed in the Toronto Star that excoriated the Harper government for the growth of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP) under its administration and highlighted the need to “scale it back dramatically.”

He wrote: 

As a result [of Harper-era policies], the number of short-term foreign workers in Canada has more than doubled, from 141,000 in 2005 to 338,000 in 2012. There were nearly as many temporary foreign workers admitted into the country in 2012 as there were permanent residents — 213,573 of the former compared to 257,887.

At this rate, by 2015, temporary worker entries will outnumber permanent resident entries.

This has all happened under the Conservatives’ watch, despite repeated warnings from the Liberal Party and from Canadians across the country about its impact on middle-class Canadians: it drives down wages and displaces Canadian workers.”

Fast forward a decade and the Trudeau government’s own record on the TFWP has failed to adhere to these sensible insights. 

The figure below displays the number of work permit holders at the end of 2022 through Canada’s two temporary labour migration streams—the TFWP and the International Mobility Program (IMP). The TFWP covers migration programs that require a Labour Market Impact Assessment to receive a work permit such as the live-in caregiver program and various agricultural programs. The IMP does not require labour market assessments and includes individuals working on visas related to trade agreements such as the Canada-U.S.-Mexico Trade Agreement, individuals on post-graduate work permits, and so on.

Mr. Trudeau was correct in 2014 to observe that there was a more than doubling of the program under the Conservatives before a slight reduction owing to policy changes later that year that included a partial moratorium on new permits and visas.

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson.

Under Trudeau’s tenure as prime minister, however, the number of temporary work permits has grown dramatically—far outstripping those during the Harper government. In 2015, there were a little more than 310,000 temporary work permits. By 2022, the number had more than doubled to almost 800,000. Partial data from 2023 indicate that there was a further increase last year. 

One way to understand this massive increase in the number of temporary foreign workers is to use Trudeau’s own standard of the share relative to permanent residents. He warned in 2014 that the ratio was approaching 1:1. In 2022, there were roughly 440,000 permanent residents admitted into Canada compared to the almost 800,000 working on temporary visas.

This significant growth not only conflicts with Trudeau’s chief recommendation in his op-ed that the TFWP needed to be constrained but also his broader concerns about the risks of an over reliance on temporary foreign workers. 

He concluded: 

It cuts to the heart of who we are as a country. I believe it is wrong for Canada to follow the path of countries who exploit large numbers of guest workers, who have no realistic prospect of citizenship. It is bad for our economy in that it depresses wages for all Canadians, but it’s even worse for our country. It puts pressure on our commitment to diversity, and creates more opportunities for division and rancour.

We can and must do better.

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