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The Temporary Foreign Workers Program

The Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP) was created in 1973 by the federal government for Canadian employers to hire temporary foreign workers (TFWs) to fulfill temporary jobs in the absence of qualified Canadians and permanent residents. The program was initially designed to allow employers to hire foreign workers for a limited period, typically for six months, to fill labour shortages in sectors where Canadian workers were not available. Over time, the program expanded to include a broader range of industries and occupations, and the duration of work permits was extended to several years.

TFWs are hired in various sectors, including agriculture, hospitality, healthcare, and manufacturing, among others. The program was initially intended to recruit two levels of foreign workers: workers with specialized skills like academia, business executives, and engineers, and low-skilled migrant workers, most being seasonal agriculture workers (O’Donnell & Skuterud, 2022). Recently, however, it has come to focus on low-skilled workers, and has been widely criticized for its failures to safeguard employees’ rights in relation to occupational and employment standards, health and safety, and pay.

Michael Swan via Flikr, Attribution-NoDerivs (CC BY-ND 2.0).

The Program

Before hiring a TFW, employers must first get a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) from Employment and Social Development of Canada (ESDC) demonstrating the validity of the job offer and the absence of any Canadian citizens or permanent residents who are qualified to fill the position.  The program is jointly managed by ESDC and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). ESDC is responsible for ensuring that the employers who hire TFWs comply with the requirements of the program, including paying wages and providing working conditions that are consistent with Canadian standards. IRCC, on the other hand, is responsible for the issuance of work permits, as well as the screening and processing of applications for foreign workers.

Within the broader TFWP that focuses on either a high-wage stream or a low-wage stream, there are special programs that focus on hiring TFWs in particular sectors—namely the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program that allows Canadian farmers to hire foreign workers to fill seasonal labour shortages in the agricultural sector, and the Live-in Caregiver Program that allows Canadian families to hire foreign caregivers to provide care for children, elderly persons, or persons with disabilities.

Importantly, TFWs are protected under Canadian labour laws, and employers are required to provide them with the same working conditions, wages, and benefits as Canadian citizens and permanent residents. Additionally, employers must provide TFWs with suitable accommodation, either on-site or in close proximity to the workplace. But in in recent years, there have been a number of critical issues and scandals related to employers violating the conditions of the program, for example paying TFWs less than Canadian workers, requiring TFWs to work in substandard conditions, and not providing suitable accommodation.

Critical Issues…

Healthcare. TFWs are entitled to apply for health insurance coverage in Canada, which covers basic medical services, but may be required to pay for additional services, such as prescription drugs, dental care, and vision care. Unfortunately, there a critical obstacles when it comes to access. In addition to having to get permission to take time off, to find a health care provider, and travel to see them, for those engaged in low-wage employment, the costs of not working that day might be too significant. Further, because many workers are hoping to eventually become Canadian citizens (and may have already applied for immigration), they may be reticent to engage with a healthcare provider or reveal any underlying or longstanding health conditions. As an extensive medical history can be a basis for denial when applying for permanent residency in Canada, and as such some TFWs may not seeking help for mental or physical health when they need it in order to avoid or even start building a health history.

Uncredited image taken from: CUPE post, “When a temporary foreign workers program is not temporary

Gender-related discrimination. More than two times as many men than women have typically been employed under the TFWP, with 75% of men working “in occupations that have well-defined skill levels (e.g., managerial, professional, skilled, and technical),” with only 40% of women in the TFWP similarly engaged in skilled work. For the most part, women in the TFWP are hired into either low-income domestic employment (through the live-in caregiver program) or into retail or food service. Because these are mostly seen to be low-skill jobs, women in the TFWP tend to receive a very low level of remuneration. Additionally, a culture of silence surrounding abuses and harassment leaves women unsafe in some workplaces, as the TFW’s capacity to remain in Canada is often tied to their work with their specific employer (a “closed contract”), and resigning may result in an immediate return home. A lack of awareness of their rights puts women further at risk of unemployment or exploitation. According to a report from CRIAW-ICREF, in 2011, “a group of Filipina women living in Alberta were wrongfully told that if they became pregnant they would gain permanent residency in Canada.” Instead, their contracts were revoked.

Economic exploitation.​​ Another critical concern is how the government distinguishes between high-skilled workers and low-skilled workers. A University of Calgary study suggests Canada is not facing a “wide-scale labour shortage” – what the TFWP was designed to accommodate – but rather is experiencing a “serious mismatch” between the skills of its labour force and the demands of the labour market. This is evident through a study that observed that the number of Employment Insurance (EI) claims in a region was positively correlated with a higher number of TFWs recruited by local firms. This suggests that even when there are Canadians available to engage in certain forms of labour, either there is a lack of desire on the part of those in the workforce to take on jobs where the pay is too low, and the labour conditions troublesome, and that instead of changing working conditions, employers would prefer cheaper, foreign labour. This “mismatch” enables employers to exploit foreign workers through very low wages, and precarious working conditions.

Racial discrimination. Arising out of the TFWP, some academic literature suggests racism contributes to the selection of participants within the program. Since the program’s inception, most agricultural workers have come from Jamaica. Until recently, there has been a shift towards a preference among farmers for Mexican TFWs over Caribbean ones. Some assert that this shift is racially motivated and based upon racial stereotypes of Mexican and Black Caribbean agricultural workers. Farmers view Mexican workers as more docile and easier to exploit since many speak little English and are unaware of their rights. In contrast, most Caribbean workers speak English and are more prone to speak out and resist employer exploitation. These stereotypes and racist tropes about Black Caribbean TFWs could explain why Canadian farmers increasingly select TFWs from non-English speaking countries. There are also reports that Canadian farmers have threatened replacement to coerce Caribbean employees into compliance. Further, and as noted above, TFWs are restricted to one employer during their contract, making them more likely to accept exploitative conditions because they cannot go to another employer. With potential 18-hour workdays, agricultural TFWs face a unique challenge due to their isolation from nearby communities. As their place of work is typically far from cities or towns, and because some employers restrict workers’ mobility and interactions with others by enforcing curfews, agricultural TFWs face unique barriers when trying to engage in social activities outside of work. 

Conclusions and Recommendations

There have been many recommendations to improve the TFW program over time, most of them focusing on the increased regulation and monitoring of employers.  For example, by limiting or eliminating employers’ flexibility to set wages for foreign labour, they can no longer underpay foreign workers up to 15 percent below median Canadian salaries. Additionally, stricter rules for regular TFWP applications, new fees for employers who apply, and a promise of stricter enforcement could discourage further program exploitation. Creating legal protections for TFWs who leave their jobs due to mistreatment would reduce these individuals’ fear of speaking out against exploitation and abuse. Protecting workers, rather than deporting them, would create a culture in which those being mistreated are supported, and problematic employers are punished. Further, the federal government could create more pathways to permanent residency and increased support for TFWs to better protect their rights. 

In conclusion, the TWFP intended to fulfill labour shortages in Canada, but the program has evolved over time, encountering numerous issues, including worker exploitation, unfavourable working conditions, gender inequality, poor job regulation, and an attempt to cut salaries.

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Contributors: Madison Hum, Tabitha Lee, Tanya D’Souza, Iman Khan, Nick Aboagye