Canadian diversity complicates foreign worker policy-making

posted on March 23, 2015

By Peter O’Neil, Vancouver Sun | Link to Article

By Peter O’Neil, Vancouver Sun | Link to Article

For several years, the federal government faced pressure to crack down on the rapidly growing temporary foreign worker program due to high-profile abuses. Now that Ottawa has done just that, a torrent of criticism has come from the other direction.

Premier Christy Clark, for one, has called the reforms “tragically misdirected” and a huge problem for the B.C. economy, which has labour shortages.

Is this just a case of inept policy-making? Or is the challenge of getting such a national policy right extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, in a country as geographically, economically and demographically diverse as Canada?

“In any country, it’s a difficult and complex policy to implement, but in Canada it’s further complicated given our diversity,” said Robert Vineberg, a former senior federal immigration official now with the Canada West Foundation think-tank.

Vineberg is a panelist in one of five separate sessions devoted to the issue at the Metropolis conference, which is being held in Vancouver starting on March 26.

No one should expect easy answers, given that senior federal officials consider it one of the most difficult-to-solve policy issues of our time.

One of the other conference panelists said the goal of a one-size-fits-all temporary foreign worker policy is unrealistic.

“Our economy has become so complex that it’s impossible for us to anticipate every dimension of it, and build policies and programs that serve everybody’s interests well,” said Diana MacKay, executive director of the Conference Board of Canada.

One of the few recent studies on the matter was done by Vineberg’s Canada West Foundation, which warned the 2014 policy change would have severe consequences for employers, especially in B.C. and Alberta.

The foundation studied the government’s decision to toughen eligibility requirements and gradually reduce the maximum proportion of temporary foreign workers at any one establishment to a 10 per cent by 2016.

While the foundation called for greater flexibility to take into account different labour market needs across the country, it stopped short of spelling out specifically how that policy would look in practice.

Another study has been released by the parliamentary budget officer, Jean-Denis Frechette, and his inconclusive findings also underscored the issue’s complexity.

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