Canada Ponders Major Overhaul To Temporary Foreign Worker Program

Will Canada’s foreign workers soon have a higher minimum wage than some native-born Canadians?

That’s just one of several proposals under consideration as Canada’s Conservative government reacts to the enormous public and political fallout from the country’s Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW) program.

Over the last several weeks, the TFW program has rocketed to the top of national debate both in Canada’s parliament, as well as in public forums. Spurring the controversy has been a rash of high profile stories of alleged employer abuse of foreign workers, which resulted in the government freezing the hiring of foreign workers within the food service sector.

With an eye on the federal election expected in 2015, the Conservative government is now considering several proposals that would result in a major revamping of the TFW program. During a recent closed-door meeting with Canadian employer groups, Employment Minister Jason Kenney put forth a number of major reforms of the TFW, including:

  • Imposing a minimum wage for TFW employees that would be higher than the one for Canadian workers; the industry most affected would likely be the food service sector, the same industry recently accused of abuse of foreign workers
  • Restructuring the TFW program to make it easier for Canadian employers to hire foreign workers in regions with lower unemployment, while making it more difficult to hire foreign workers in areas with higher unemployment
  • Perhaps the most dramatic change to the TFW program under consideration is an enormous increase in the employer user fee, from the current $275 to a potential high of $2325, the amount charged by the United States for a similar program

According to media reports, after meeting with the employer groups to discuss the possible TFW changes, both Employment Minister Kenney and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander subsequently met with four of Canada’s largest labor organizations.

It’s expected that the federal government could run into several challenges should it decide to implement the proposed TFW program changes. For example, the proposal to establish a federal minimum wage for foreign workers would run counter to the established principal of allowing provinces to set their own minimum wages.

In addition, the Canadian restaurant sector is expressing deep concern about placing further restrictions on the TFW program, given the significant role that foreign workers play in that industry.

“The idea that wages could be elevated to the degree that the minister seemed to be indicating is just not going to be workable for our industry,” explained Joyce Reynolds, executive vice-president of Restaurants Canada. “It would (also) impact a lot of industries other than ours as well.”