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From fast food to construction, employers turn more and more to temporary foreign workers

Data drawn from labour market impact assessments — documents employers need to hire temporary foreign workers — shows the program is on the rise in a range of industries.

Approvals through the temporary foreign worker program rises in variety of sectors, analysis shows

A food service worker hands a McDonald's branded cup to a driver through a drive-thru window.

Businesses' demand for temporary foreign workers has surged across the country in recent years, with employers given the green light to hire more than double the people through the federal program last year as they did five years ago.

The program is designed to provide short-term relief to employers as a last resort, but has been scrutinized for its potential knock-on effects to the broader economy and the vulnerable position in which it can place workers.

Last year, employers were cleared to hire 239,646 temporary foreign workers, about the population of Regina. That's up from 108,988 in 2018, according to figures published by Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC).

The program's growth coincided with the government loosening hiring restrictions to help businesses with post-pandemic labour shortages. Some economists criticized that move, saying it undermined healthy competition for workers in a market economy.

"All we hear about are labour shortages, [but] we have to begin to recognize that this really is a self-serving narrative mostly coming from corporate Canada," said Mikal Skuterud, a labour economics professor at the University of Waterloo.

As the program has expanded, there's been interest from a wide range of industries.

CBC News analyzed federal data about the number of positions on positive labour market impact assessments (LMIAs), a document proving there are no Canadians available to take a job.

The numbers show that while farm and greenhouse workers have consistently been the program's most in-demand roles, demand for other jobs is on the rise.

Across the economy, employers have turned to the program to fill roles ranging from administrative assistants (from 287 in 2018 to 3,337 in 2023), to light duty cleaners (from 201 to 3,043), to construction trade helpers and labourers (from 132 to 5,353).

An increase in positive LMIA positions doesn't necessarily mean there are more temporary foreign workers in the country. For example, an approved employer might change their mind before actually hiring one.

But its reflects employers' rising interest in the program — which, by any metric, is growing. Work permit data published by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada shows the number of temporary foreign workers in the country last year hit its highest point since records began in 2015.

Taking orders and flipping burgers

Fast food chains and restaurants are a major source of demand for temporary foreign workers. After farm and greenhouse workers, the roles with the most approvals last year were cooks, food service supervisors, food counter attendants and kitchen helpers.

Food counter attendants, in particular, increased from 170 jobs in 2018 to 8,333 in 2023. The top 10 employers cleared to hire the highest number of them last year were all fast food operators.

The relationship between the food service industry and the temporary foreign worker program has at times been fraught. Roughly a decade ago, controversy around the industry's use of the program led the federal government to impose a temporary moratorium on that sector.

A KFC restaurant is pictured from the outside in New York.

But times have changed along with labour markets.

Citing significant labour shortages, in 2022 the federal government doubled the proportion of low-wage workers businesses could hire through the program, from 10 per cent of their workforce to 20 per cent.

Certain sectors hit particularly hard by the pandemic, including food service, were greenlighted to hire as much as 30 per cent of low-wage staff through the program.

For businesses, a major benefit is stability, as the workers' permits are tied to their employer, meaning they can't easily quit to work for a rival business down the street.

"It guarantees a worker will stay employed with them for the term of the agreement," says the Canadian Franchise Association on its website.

CBC News reached out to 14 restaurants and franchise groups cleared to hire the most cooks, food service supervisors and food counter attendants last year.

None agreed to an interview, although a spokesperson for Franchise Management Inc., which operates Pizza Hut, KFC and Taco Bell franchises, said the program has allowed it to keep operating in rural and northern areas.

"Unfortunately, some of these communities often lack the population base to meet the demand for labour," said Dana Myshrall in an emailed statement.

The company was cleared to hire 140 food counter attendants last year, though Myshrall said it expects to hire far fewer this year.

Workers' experience

A man wearing glasses and a blue plaid button-down poses in front of a "Migrante Alberta" sign.

For workers, a lack of domestic opportunities is typically what pushes people to seek work abroad, said Marco Luciano, director of the advocacy group Migrante Alberta.

Canada is appealing because it's one of the few countries where a temporary job can turn into a permanent residency, he said.

But the experience of being a temporary foreign worker can be mixed, he said.

There are good employers who abide by their contracts and support workers in applying for permanent residency, said Luciano.

"My boss [was] really, really good, just really nice," said Ruth St-Martin, a former temporary foreign worker who moved from the Philippines to St. Alberta, Alta., in 2011 to work at an Arby's restaurant. She has since obtained permanent residency and become an oil and gas lab technician.

"When I got my permanent residency, I didn't quit right away in Arby's, because I want[ed] to show my loyalty to my boss."

WATCH | The cost to hire a TFW and how an LMIA works:

How the temporary foreign worker program works in Canada

1 hour ago

Duration 4:26

Employers must first post the job to find workers locally, says Peter Veress, president of Vermax Group, an immigration consulting firm.

But Luciano said other employers abuse their power and underpay workers, even withholding pay to compensate for the money spent on an LMIA. Workers are often afraid to speak up for fear of losing their status in Canada, he said.

A man with a shaved head and glasses poses in a university building hallway. He is wearing a backpack and a blue sweatshirt that says "Serve the people."

Danilo de Leon does not remember his time in the program fondly. De Leon came to Edmonton, also from the Philippines, in 2009 to work for Bee Clean, a cleaning company contracted by the University of Alberta.

At the time, de Leon and his colleagues alleged the company withheld pay and threatened them with deportation. The company later said the unpaid wages were an error, apologized and said it would pay the workers back.

"We were treated like slaves. We were working like 12 hours every night, we don't get paid for overtime, no night differential," said de Leon, of his past experience. He has since become an advocate for migrant workers and is seeking his own permanent residency.

"If not for my daughter, I wouldn't have wanted to stay here, but there's no job back home."

Economic impact

Skuterud, the economist, said the temporary foreign worker program can also affect the broader economy.

He pointed to one paper that suggests the hiring of such workers correlates with lower earnings for Canadian workers in similar jobs and locations.

"We don't like to think about this kind of competition, but of course it's hard reality," he said.

In a statement, ESDC spokesperson Liana Brault said employers are required to offer temporary foreign workers at least the regional median hourly wage for the job in question.

A man with short grey hair and a grey beard, wearing a button down shirt over a pink t-shirt, is pictured outdoors at the University of Waterloo.

This program isn't the only source of temporary workers in the country. International students also hold permits, as do workers under the wide-ranging international mobility program.

But taken together, Skuterud believes growth in all three programsshows the government is moving away from its points-based immigration system and toward a more ad hoc approach where people try to parlay a work or study permit into permanent status.

"It looks like a lottery and your ticket is a work permit," said Skuterud. "We need to get back to a transparent system that's fair to the migrants."

'Not truly temporary'

Construction workers are pictured during an affordable housing press conference in Vancouver, B.C.

This spring, the federal government changed course on the temporary foreign worker program, tightening how many such workers a business could hire, citing changing labour markets and lower vacancies.

Most employers are now limited to hiring 20 per cent of low-wage staff through the program. (That's still higher than the pre-pandemic limit of 10 per cent, and some sectors, like health care and construction, can continue to hire up to 30 per cent.)

While public pressure has mounted regarding the connection between immigration and housing affordability, ESDC's Brault said the changes were unrelated, and "solely based on employment numbers."

There are different perspectives on how to improve the program. Groups like Migrante Alberta want to see easier access to permanent residency for migrant workers — an initiative that was recently announced for caregivers — while a recent senators' report called for changes including an end to closed work permits.

The report noted the program was created in 1973 as a limited, last-resort means of filling jobs. But 50 years later, it's become core to certain industries, with no indication of ending anytime soon.

"Neither migrant work programs nor workers are truly temporary," it said.

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