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Caught in the Middle


The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) has been making news of late, but not in a way that puts the program or the authorities running it in a flattering light.

The imposition of an immediate moratorium on the food-services sector’s access to the TFWP, announced by federal Minister of Employment and Social Development Jason Kenney in late April, has prompted Quebec’s immigration minister to call on Ottawa to lift the ban on hiring temporary foreign workers in the province’s restaurants.

Groups representing migrant workers, which include Migrant Workers’ Rights, Justicia for Migrant Workers and Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, have decried the move, which has been deemed by some quarters as a knee-jerk reaction to placate unions and caving in to public pressure.

The issue has also served as a fertile ground for opposition parties to criticize the Conservative government’s policies. In a commentary published in the Toronto Star on May 5, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau charged that the Conservative government’s mismanagement of the TFWP has resulted in an influx of vulnerable workers into the country and put workplace safety on shaky grounds.

Programs like the TFWP deal with a sensitive issue and could entail political — and human — costs if not managed properly. On one hand, there is a real economic necessity to bring in foreign workers to fill jobs that are not being taken up by Canadians. On the other hand, the government needs to ensure that these programs do not discourage employers from hiring Canadians, or worse, take jobs away from them. And there is also the moral responsibility to safeguard the occupational health and safety of vulnerable migrant workers, who are human beings like their Canadian counterparts.

The imposition of a moratorium stemming from serious allegations of abuse of the TFWP can best be described as thumping one’s fist on the ground to kill an ant. It is a move that will hurt not only a specific sector of the economy — in this case, the food-services industry — but also law-abiding employers by making it much harder for them to hire workers during the busy upcoming summer months and, last but not least, the foreign workers themselves.

In a letter addressed to Minister Kenney, Joyce Reynolds, executive vice-president of government affairs with Restaurants Canada in Toronto, says the moratorium has “created a great deal of anxiety” among its members and their employees, including their temporary foreign workers, in regions with no success hiring Canadians or permanent residents. Reynolds voiced her concerns about restaurants having to shut down parts of their businesses, curtail operations and hours, put expansion plans on hold and, in some cases, cease operations — all of which would threaten the job security of Canadian employees in the sector.

While the economy and food-business owners are affected by the moratorium, temporary foreign workers at the bottom of the food chain are the hardest hit. They are doubly victimized by errant employers who abuse the TFWP and by the moratorium imposed by the federal government, which puts migrant workers’ jobs on the line — especially those who are already employed in the restaurant sector and whose contracts are due to expire.

Clearly, there are holes in the TFWP that require fixing. But it must be done in a way that duly punishes the abusers, not the victims.