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

Commentary

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.

‘Canadians are paying the price’: MP Adam Chambers on why spending and the deficit will be big issues as Parliament returns

Commentary

With the federal Parliament back in session, The Hub’s editor-at-large, Sean Speer, spoke with Conservative MP Adam Chambers about some of the big economic and fiscal issues that are likely to animate the upcoming session, including the likelihood that the government will stay within its own fiscal guardrails in the 2024 budget. 

SEAN SPEER: As the House of Commons gets set for a new sitting, what issues do you think will animate the debate and what are you hoping to see out of the government?

ADAM CHAMBERS: Given that we return in the middle of budget season, I am hoping that we will see a restrained fiscal plan from the government. But recent history and habits don’t leave me encouraged.  

The government has increased spending on average nearly 6 percent per year since coming to office. Relative to pre-COVID levels the Liberals are spending roughly 25 percent more each year. And the Bank of Canada is now publicly pleading for help from governments to slow its spending growth so inflation can be contained.

In a couple of months, Statistics Canada will release its household income survey, which will update the poverty line and income levels in Canada. These results will be sobering as they will show the devastating effects that inflation has on low and fixed-income households in Canada. These data will further highlight the cost and consequences of the government’s inflationary spending. Only Conservatives have been warning that the government’s policy choices through increased spending and increased taxes on energy would ultimately contribute to making life more unaffordable for Canadians. 

SEAN SPEER: As a member of the Official Opposition, one tension that you must deal with is the balance between prosecuting your case against the government and setting out your own policies and priorities. How do you think about that balance? And should we anticipate more details about the Conservative Party’s own policy programme over the coming months? 

ADAM CHAMBERS: Every day presents a new scandal or misstep from government. It is our job to prosecute the government and hold it accountable for its decisions that have led to the considerable hurt to Canadians. In time, we will be releasing more ideas on what a Conservative government will offer to Canadians. However, I recommend anyone to listen to the recent speeches or videos by Mr. Poilievre, many of which highlight the party’s key themes—namely: Make work pay through lower taxes. Build homes. Fix the budget. Stop the crime. 

It is worth mentioning that the government has already stolen a few Conservative ideas for their own. Consider for instance the tying of federal funding to municipalities based on zoning regulations and densification around transit. This was announced last spring by Mr. Poilievre only to have the Liberals borrow that idea this fall. While flattering, it is a signal the government is out of ideas and scrambling to find solutions to problems that it previously claimed didn’t exist. 

SEAN SPEER: The 2024 budget is no doubt being worked on as we speak. What should we be looking for to judge whether the government is actually prepared to abide by its own fiscal guardrails including limiting the deficit to 1 percent of GDP over the next couple of years? And what are the risks if it fails to do so? 

ADAM CHAMBERS: Spending must be restrained as I mentioned earlier, but the Liberals have broken all other fiscal anchors, so there is reason to be skeptical. This is particularly surprising because inflation has driven up government revenues to record highs. Yet instead of using this extra revenue to improve Canada’s fiscal position, the Liberals have steadily increased spending. Old habits die hard. In eight years, the government hasn’t reduced a single program. I don’t expect them to start making difficult decisions now.  

In light of that backdrop, the government is going to have a hard time meeting their own guardrail of keeping annual deficits to 1 percent of GDP. Recent analysis by the Business Council of Canada suggests that in the post-Second World War era, the federal government has managed to record a deficit of less than 1 percent of GDP only twice when government spending exceeds 17 percent of GDP. 

Moreover, anyone who is not worried about Canada’s fiscal position is making a significant gamble on a “soft landing”—that is, that there will not be any serious economic downside events over the short and medium term. 

Any economic downside will significantly erode the fiscal capacity of the government. We are now spending $50B a year on interest on the debt. These debt service costs which already run over 10 percent of government revenues necessarily reduce the government’s flexibility to handle economic shocks. Unfortunately, that share will grow as the government rolls over $300B in borrowing this year due to its negligent decision to take on mostly short-term debt during the pandemic. This borrowing is now being refinanced at significantly higher rates and Canadians are paying the price.