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Senate calls for substantial reforms to Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program, including a commission

by HR News Canada
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The Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science, and Technology has released a report calling for substantial reforms to Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP).

The report highlights that the program, initially intended as a “last and limited resort,” has become integral to several key sectors, including agriculture, seafood processing, and caregiving.

The committee’s investigation was prompted by widespread concerns about the efficacy and fairness of the TFWP. Between November 2022 and 2024, the committee conducted 14 meetings in Ottawa, hearing from a diverse array of stakeholders, including workers, employers, sector experts, and government officials.

The committee also undertook a fact-finding mission to New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island in September 2023 to gather first-hand accounts from those directly affected by the program.

Program unworkable for employers, migrant workers

During these sessions, it became apparent that the TFWP is fraught with issues that make it unworkable for both employers and migrant workers. The report points to the employer-specific work permit as a significant source of vulnerability for workers, making them susceptible to abuse and limiting their ability to change jobs. The permit also constrains employers’ flexibility to move workers between tasks and recognize their skills through promotions.

“The employer-specific work permit inherently makes migrant workers more vulnerable to abuse at the hands of bad actors,” the report states, reflecting a consensus among both worker advocates and government officials. This system, the report argues, creates structural barriers to accessing rights and protections, and frustrates well-intentioned employers by restricting their ability to manage their workforce effectively.

Program has revolved reactively, not strategically

The committee’s study found that the TFWP is part of a confusing web of immigration and labour programs that have evolved reactively rather than strategically. This patchwork approach has led to a proliferation of pilot programs and temporary policies, complicating the landscape for both workers and employers.

The involvement of multiple federal departments and various provincial, municipal, and community actors adds to the confusion, with neither workers nor employers knowing where to turn for support or information.

Enforcement issues

Enforcement of the program’s rules also came under scrutiny. Employers expressed frustration over duplicative and uncoordinated inspections by different government bodies. Meanwhile, migrant workers and their advocates noted that many inspections are announced in advance, giving unscrupulous employers time to manipulate conditions. Both groups agreed that the enforcement regime needs strengthening to prevent abuse and ensure compliance.

The committee’s report also sheds light on the unique challenges faced by women and gender-diverse migrant workers, who are particularly vulnerable to sexual and physical violence and often lack access to adequate health care. These workers frequently avoid reporting mistreatment due to fears of job loss and deportation.

Migrant workers play essential role

Despite these issues, the committee’s mission to New Brunswick and P.E.I. highlighted the essential role migrant workers play in sustaining local economies. Members observed that without these workers, many businesses, especially in rural areas, would not be able to operate. Employers in these regions often sponsor migrant workers for permanent residence, appreciating the increased flexibility and stability this offers both parties.

Summary of key recommendations

The report concludes with a set of recommendations aimed at overhauling Canada’s migrant labour infrastructure.

Recommendation 1: Establish a Migrant Work Commission

  • Create a tripartite commission with government, employer, and migrant worker representation.
  • Monitor and evaluate policies, provide annual reports, and conduct consultations.
  • Collect and disseminate data on migrant workers.

Recommendation 2: Phase Out Employer-Specific Work Permits

  • Plan to phase out employer-specific permits within three years.
  • Explore sector- and region-specific permits through consultations.
  • Support regional sector councils to manage labour assessments and workers’ rights.

Recommendation 3: Facilitate Transition to Permanent Residence

  • Include temporary residents in Immigration Levels Plans.
  • Provide clear information on transitioning to permanent residence.
  • Review criteria for permanent residence and expand the Provincial Nominee Program.
  • Increase funding for Settlement Program services and support organizations.

Recommendation 4: Improve Enforcement and Compliance

  • Standardize unannounced inspections and implement rigorous audits.
  • Address reporting barriers for women and gender-diverse workers.
  • Coordinate enforcement across all levels of government.

Recommendation 5: Ensure Access to Health Care

  • Inform workers of their health care rights and enforce employer compliance.
  • Address barriers to sexual and reproductive health care.
  • Expand Interim Federal Health Program eligibility for workers in gaps.

Recommendation 6: Improve Data Collection and Sharing

  • Develop a coordinated data strategy across government levels.
  • Support local data collection by community organizations.
  • Enhance the collection and sharing of identity-related data while respecting privacy.

“The frequent changes to immigration and migrant labour programs were a constant reminder of their complex nature and the fast pace of change that can be achieved when deemed necessary,” the report notes. It calls on the Government of Canada to acknowledge the program’s history and current challenges and to implement a strategic plan to improve the migrant labour system for the benefit of all Canadians.

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