Peter Ladner

Columnist

Temporary foreign workers threaten lasting damage to economy

This province’s growing reliance on TFWs may benefit some businesses in the short run, but it’s a disastrous public policy

The story about the shortage of tree planters in last week’s Business in Vancouver just might be a clue about the appeal of temporary foreign workers (TFWs).

Tree-planting is just one B.C. industry suffering from a shortage of workers. Demand for silviculture is growing; it’s essential for the future of our forest industry and it caters to outdoors-oriented young people who want to make the world a better place, so why is there a shortage of workers? The answer is pretty simple: the price tree planters are paid hasn’t gone up in the past 30 years. One silviculture contractor estimates pay is down about 30% from 12 years ago. Tuition fees, housing, food and gas have gone up – a lot. Wages are no longer competitive.

I have no idea if tree-planting companies have started looking TFWs to fill the gap. I’d be surprised if they haven’t. It’s happening in other industries finding it hard to compete or to find workers, skilled or otherwise. The temporary foreign workers from China hired to work at Huiyong Holdings Group’s Murray River mine near Tumbler Ridge galvanized public opinion on this topic, but workers from China are a tiny minority of the TFWs in B.C. This province is “home” to almost a quarter of all Canadian TFWs. The biggest country of origin is Australia. Think of the lifties and pizza-slingers at Whistler. Why, you have to wonder, wouldn’t there be Canadian workers willing to take those jobs?

Check the pay rates.

An even-handed discussion of this topic also has to recognize the other competition employers face: the employment insurance programs, low-income tax credits, GST rebates and other entitlements rewarding Canadian citizens who choose not to work full time. Last summer I heard a verbal outpouring from a hotel owner in Zeballos, where unemployment in the small coastal community runs about 50%. He was a solid employer with a long record of entrepreneurial success and community service. He couldn’t find three workers to help with his restaurant and hotel renovation who could be relied on to show up for work and not be under the influence of something harmful. He had to hire a cook from Mexico. It seems most of the community was entangled in a giant social safety net or handout program that enabled a rich mix of dysfunctional behaviour.

Unfortunately, this province’s growing reliance on TFWs may benefit some businesses in the short run, but it’s a disastrous public policy. By relying on TFWs, businesses lose the incentive to pay competitive wages, promote training for missing skills or invest in improved productivity.

How can the standard policy of every political party – “Jobs for Canadians” – square with filling new jobs with easily abused TFWs who can now legally be hired at rates 15% below “average” Canadian wages?

Human rights issues aside, TFWs spend almost nothing at local businesses, send their salaries out of the country, invest nothing in the social fabric of the country and raise the unemployment rates of permanent new immigrants (already higher than 11% in B.C.). There are more than twice as many TFWs in B.C. as permanent immigrants. Only seven years ago, permanent immigrants outnumbered foreign workers. How is this good for the country except for the business income taxes it delivers to governments and the short cut to higher profits for company owners (many of them from outside Canada, too)? Why wouldn’t we just lift the cap on permanent immigrants, especially those with the skills we are missing?

Expanding TFWs instead is a short-sighted approach that sucks the life out of Canadian communities and citizens in the interests of “the economy.”

What kind of economy is that? •

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