Executive Summary – Temporary Foreign Workers in Canada

(Disponible en français : Résumé – Les travailleurs étrangers temporaires au Canada)

Temporary foreign workers have been an important feature of Canada’s labour market landscape for decades. In essence, temporary foreign workers are foreign nationals engaged in work activities who are authorized to enter and to remain in Canada for a limited period with the appropriate documentation. In Canada, they are grouped in two overarching temporary labour migration programs.

The first one is the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), which assists employers in filling specific labour market gaps when Canadians and permanent residents are not available. The TFWP consists of several major streams, which have diverse requirements and operating procedures. These are:

  • the high-wage stream (which refers to positions with wages at or above the provincial or territorial median hourly wage);
  • the low-wage stream (which refers to positions with wages below the provincial or territorial median hourly wage);
  • the primary agriculture stream (which refers to temporary foreign workers engaged in on-farm primary agricultural work, and includes the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program);
  • the Global Talent Stream (which offers a shorter processing time to help employers obtain highly skilled or specialized temporary foreign workers more quickly); and
  • the Caregiver Program (which refers to positions involving the care of children or family members with high medical needs).

These TFWP streams require employers to obtain a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA). Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) will issue a positive LMIA if an assessment indicates that hiring a temporary foreign worker will have a positive or neutral impact on the Canadian labour market. Where an LMIA is required, a positive LMIA must be obtained before the temporary foreign worker can apply to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada for a work permit.

Over the years, the TFWP, in particular, has gone through a series of reforms, the most significant of which were announced on 20 June 2014. These reforms were intended to limit employer reliance on temporary foreign workers and to strengthen compliance mechanisms to ensure that employers respect program requirements. While the number of approved LMIA applications decreased during this time (with ESDC approving approximately 73,000 fewer temporary foreign worker positions in 2015 than in 2013), starting in 2017, an upward trend has been observed, even though many of the reforms have remained in place. A similar pattern can be seen in the number of work permits issued over the past few years. There are various reasons for this new trend, including a decrease in unemployment rates during this time.

The second temporary labour migration program is the International Mobility Program (IMP), which encompasses streams of work permit applications that do not require an LMIA. This exemption from the LMIA process is based on the IMP’s broader economic, cultural or other competitive advantages for Canada, as well as on the reciprocal benefits enjoyed by Canadians and permanent residents. The number of workers in the IMP has risen consistently over the years, with the international graduates group being the single largest and fastest-growing component of international mobility. The IMP is significantly larger than the TFWP, with more than twice as many IMP work permits as TFWP work permits coming into effect each year.

Due to a variety of factors, including ineligibility for federally funded settlement services, temporary foreign workers often experience social exclusion in Canada. However, some workers do become permanent residents and Canadian citizens. Temporary foreign workers have opportunities to pursue permanent residency through pathways built into temporary labour migration streams or through separate permanent residency programs that may emphasize Canadian work experience; two examples are the Home Child Care Provider and the Home Support Worker pilots for caregivers. There are also pathways to permanent residency for workers in industries experiencing labour shortages; these pathways include the Agri-Food Immigration Pilot and the Temporary Public Policy for Out-of-Status Construction Workers in the Greater Toronto Area.

Temporary foreign workers in Canada are protected under federal, provincial and territorial labour standards and occupational health and safety legislation. Yet, at the hands of their recruiters and/or employers, many are subjected to different kinds of abuse, including harassment, unpaid overtime, inadequate wages and unsafe working conditions. The federal, provincial and territorial governments have responded by introducing several measures to better protect these workers. At the federal level, the measures have included the introduction of unannounced on-site inspections, an open work permit for vulnerable workers, and a Migrant Worker Support Network pilot project.

Read the full text of the Background Paper: Temporary Foreign Workers in Canada

Authors: Eleni Kachulis and Mayra Perez-Leclerc, Library of Parliament