A reflection on immigration policy: two years after Adjusting the Balance.

Source: Maytree Conversations.
By Naomi Alboim, Maytree Senior Fellow and Adjunct Professor, School of Policy Studies, Queen’s University
Naomi AlboimWhen I wrote Adjusting the Balance: Fixing Canada’s Economic Immigration Program, published by Maytree, I argued that the federal government was making incremental changes to immigration policy, which together represented a radical negative shift in immigration policy, without debate, without consultation and without the benefit of a national framework.
Two years later – things are worse, not better.
When we wrote the paper in 2009, the federal government had limited the Federal Skilled Worker (FSW) Program to applicants with experience in 38 occupations or a job offer. We argued that Canada’s dynamic, knowledge-based economy needs a much broader range of occupations and skills. The federal government’s own evaluation of the FSW Program in 2010 (PDF) found that, historically, those immigrants chosen for their human capital have higher incomes than those selected because of their occupation.
Yet, this month the government announced that it would continue to limit applicants to those with job offers or on a list of occupations (now a shorter list of 29). A maximum of 10,000 applications will be considered for processing until July 2012. Within this 10,000 cap, each of the 29 occupations is also capped at 500 applications.
Instead of increasing the number of FSWs, the government has continued to give priority processing to Provincial Nominees and Temporary Foreign Workers, at the expense of the Federal Skilled Worker Program.
In other words, they are continuing to place limits on those selected under the FSW Program despite the fact that they have the highest incomes and best long-term job prospects of all immigrants to Canada.
To its credit, the federal government is reviewing the current point system for Principal Applicants within the FSW Program. They appear to be taking into account the findings of their evaluation, to improve labour market outcomes for these immigrants even further. This could include allotting more points for demonstrated language capacity, youth and experience in the skilled trades, as we recommended in 2009. However, these changes will be for naught if the numbers and proportion of new applicants continue to be reduced and restricted to 29 specific occupations.
As well, there are ongoing concerns with a system that continues to prioritize temporary foreign worker applications.
Most temporary foreign workers arriving to Canada are highly skilled. But, among other concerns, our 2009 report highlighted the problematic growth in the Pilot Project for Occupations Requiring Lower Levels of Formal Training, suggesting that it should be abolished. These workers are filling jobs that aren’t necessarily “temporary” but rather harder to fill, for example in meat packing plants and in hotel janitorial services. Rather than improving the wages and working conditions for these jobs, reaching out to unemployed and under-represented groups already in Canada, or bringing in more family class members and refugees to fill those jobs on a permanent basis, the government has chosen to continue bringing in significant numbers of temporary foreign workers under this “pilot” program.
While they have the right to most of the same protections as other Canadians and permanent residents under provincial employment legislation, temporary foreign workers filling low or unskilled jobs are more vulnerable to abuse because of language barriers, lack of knowledge about their rights, limited access to agencies that can help them (especially when they are working in remote parts of Canada), and inadequate enforcement of employment legislation. Further, temporary foreign workers are not eligible for federally funded settlement services.
Regulatory changes effective April 2011 introduced penalties for employers who exploit temporary foreign workers but they still do not address the root problems of this program. Instead, they rely on vulnerable workers themselves to initiate complaints who are unaware of their rights and fear loss of employment or deportation. The four-year time limit for temporary foreign workers to legally remain in Canada serves to penalize them further. It also serves to keep them in limbo for a long period of time, with no access to services or permanent residency, and the additional rights and protections that come with that status.
A dramatic sea change in Canada’s immigration system, policies and priorities is under way, including:
  • a significant reduction in the number of sponsored parents and grandparents to be admitted to Canada;
  • a delay in the awarding of permanent resident status to sponsored spouses with a concomitant withholding of rights and access to services, resulting in increased vulnerability;
  • recently re-tabled legislation proposing that refugee claimants be placed in detention for one year if they arrive by “irregular” methods to Canada;
  • the legislation also proposes the draconian treatment of claimants who are determined to be bona fide refugees despite their “irregular” arrival (including delayed access to travel documents, permanent residence status, and family reunification); and
  • a reduction in federal funding for settlement programming.
All of this suggests there is a need for real public debate about what kind of country we want to be and what kind of immigration policy best leads us there.

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