Tens of thousands of temporary workers could be fast-tracked into Canada some within weeks, possibly even days – under a proposed radical overhaul of federal immigration rules.
The rewriting of the rules is aimed at easing Canada’s skilled labour shortage, which experts warn is growing at an alarming rate. High-tech and the building trades are two sectors of particular concern.
“The potential is quite dramatic and I think it’s a very important opportunity to address genuine labour market shortages and bring the people here that we need, quickly,” Citizenship and Immigration Minister Elinor Caplan said in an interview yesterday.
Under the planned redesign of the temporary worker program, the immigration department could whisk temporary workers into Canada once a labour shortage has been identified by the private sector working with the federal human resources department.
The new program is based on a pilot project that has been running for several years in the software sector. Ottawa wants to expand the programs to other areas immediately.
Caplan said she has already been in contact with a number of other sectors experiencing labour shortages, such as the construction trades in Ontario.
“Particularly in the Greater Toronto Area, the development at Pearson Airport has created a shortage of construction workers and labourers,” she said.
She has also had talks with representatives of the computer hardware and microchip industry.
“Employers are telling us we have to get people here more quickly where we see there are opportunities and Canada needs people,” she said.
Caplan did not spell out other sectors facing shortages.
But in a report last fall, the Bank of Canada warned that labour shortages, once restricted to high-tech industries, are now broadening to include the construction trades, engineering, truck transportation and food services and accommodations.
Caplan said the overhaul marks a shift in the way immigration is used to address labour shortages. Instead of trying to select independent immigrants according to their occupations, the immigration system will recruit people with flexible skills and use the temporary worker stream to meet urgent needs.
“Rather than trying to micro-manage the labour market, we should be listening to business on where there are areas of shortage, get blanket validation from Human Resources (for work permits) and let the employer go out and hire the people they need,” Caplan said.
Caplan said the existing temporary worker program is too “cumbersome,” because it deals with work permit requests employer by employer, rather than co-operating with sectors as a whole to identify labour shortages and issue work permits in bulk, as the revamped system would do.
“This program should bring people here in a matter of a few weeks . . . not months,” Caplan said.
At present, it can take two years or more for a skilled worker to come to Canada as an independent immigrant but the labour market evolves much more rapidly than that, Caplan said.
How quickly the new program grows and how many immigrants are ultimately involved will depend on the degree of provincial and private sector involvement, she said. “This would be a partnership,” she said.
Caplan and her officials said that since thousands of workers were involved in the pilot projects in the software sector, it stands to reason that tens of thousands of workers could be brought in through the expanded program.
Additionally, while the program is designed to draw workers from outside Canada, Caplan said some skilled workers who are already living in Canada illegally could also qualify for acceptance.
There is no agreement on how many illegal immigrants there are in Canada, or how many of those living underground are working in or qualified for skilled jobs. Some observers have suggested there are as many as 200,000 illegal immigrants in Canada, the immigration department thinks the number is more like 20,000.
Under the new temporary worker program, illegal immigrants who can secure jobs here in a sector where a labour shortage has been identified could simply leave the country briefly most likely by crossing into the U.S. then return as legal temporary workers.
“It’s certainly possible that if someone has a job offer that they can do the Buffalo shuffle. That’s a technicality, you’re talking about an operational detail,” Caplan said.
After two years in Canada, temporary workers would qualify to apply to stay here permanently as landed immigrants, as long as they were still employed and passed a background check.
Caplan said the program could be open to any part of the economy where “sector councils” from private industry get together with the Human Resources department to identify shortages and agree on the number of work permits to issue.
“It’s open-ended and that’s why I think it’s tough to put a number on it,” Caplan said. She said implementation of the program is already underway and that it will evolve as more and more sectors of the economy get involved.
Caplan has been working closely with Human Resources Minister Jane Stewart, who has also warned that Canada needs to address the shortage of skilled workers before it becomes a crisis.
To save on processing time, medical and security screening of the temporary workers will be done in Canada for those who want to stay longer than six months.
(For those who have concerns about medical safety or crime, Caplan stressed that right now, any visitor to Canada who is coming for six months or less is allowed to enter the country without a medical or security clearance.)
Employers will be responsible for paying for medical exams and covering the medical costs for temporary workers until the employees qualify as permanent residents.
One of the snags for doctors, engineers and other foreign-trained professionals has been getting certification bodies to speed up the process for accreditation in Canada.
In testimony this year before the House of Commons committee examining immigration changes, a coalition of these professional bodies warned against lowering Canada’s certification standards.
Yesterday, Caplan yesterday urged provinces and regulatory authorities to get onside in sectors where there are stringent qualification criteria for foreign-trained professionals.
“People have always been concerned about the protectionism of those regulatory authorities,” she said.
Another pilot project, involving the immigration department, the B.C. government and regulatory bodies, is looking at ways to expedite certification of foreign-trained professionals.
“The issue is, how do we change government to be more responsive to emerging labour market shortages, so that we can respond more quickly to ensure that we get the people here that we need to continue to grow and prosper,” Caplan said.