The Temporary Foreign Worker Program and COVID-19

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15 February 2021, 10:10 a.m.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the movement of goods and people in and out of Canada, affected the wellbeing of temporary foreign workers, as well as led to changes in workplace health and safety requirements. This in turn has had repercussions for the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP).

This HillNote outlines the measures that the federal government has implemented to help ensure that employers can access the temporary foreign workers (TFWs) they need, while providing a safe working environment for these individuals once they arrive.

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program

The TFWP is a temporary labour migration program that assists employers in filling specific labour market gaps when Canadians and permanent residents are not available. It is an important source of labour for a variety of sectors, including agriculture and food processing.

The TFWP is administered by Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC).  It requires employers to obtain a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) from ESDC to ensure that hiring a TFW will have a positive or neutral impact on the Canadian labour market. Once a positive LMIA is obtained, the TFW can apply to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) for a work permit.

The TFWP consists of several major streams with diverse requirements and operating procedures, including the low-wage stream; the high-wage stream; the primary agriculture stream (including the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program or SAWP); the Global Talent Stream; and the Caregiver Program.

Meeting Labour Needs During COVID-19

In March 2020, the federal government introduced restrictions on the movement of people into Canada by air travel and at land border crossings in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Certain TFWs, such as those holding valid work permits, were eventually exempted from these restrictions.

In March 2020, almost 3,000 fewer TFWP work permits came into effect compared to an average of the previous five years. The number of TFWP work permits that came into effect from April 2020 to July 2020 was also slightly below average. A higher-than-average number of work permits came into effect in August. (See Figure 1.) Note that the number of people who arrive, which is not tracked by IRCC, does not correspond with the number of issued work permits for various reasons, including the fact that individuals may hold more than one work permit.

Figure 1 – Temporary Foreign Worker Program Work Permits That Came into Effect Between January and August (2015–2019 Average and 2020)This line graph compares the number of Temporary Foreign Worker Program work permits that came into effect from January 2020 to August 2020 with the average number of permits that came into effect during the same months from 2015 to 2019. It shows that a higher-than-average number of work permits came into effect in January and February 2020, followed by a lower-than-average number of permits between March and July 2020, with the most noticeable disparity in March. A higher-than-average number of work permits came into effect in August.

Source: Figure prepared by the authors using data obtained from Government of Canada, “Canada – Temporary Foreign Worker Program work permit holders by gender, occupational skill level and year in which permit(s) became effective,” Temporary Residents: Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) and International Mobility Program (IMP) Work Permit Holders – Monthly IRCC Updates, 2015–2020 data, accessed December 2020.

The federal government also introduced measures to increase flexibility and reduce the administrative burden on employers who rely on the program to meet labour needs. LMIAs for occupations deemed essential during the pandemic were prioritized for processing. In addition, recruitment requirements – such as the use of recruitment methods that target Canadians or permanent residents before seeking a TFW – were suspended for certain occupations until 31 December 2020.

Additional measures were not linked with specific occupations. For example:

  • under a new three-year pilot, the maximum employment period under an LMIA for TFWs in the low-wage stream has increased from one year to two;
  • the validity period for LMIAs has been extended; and
  • a temporary policy implemented in May 2020 allows TFWs already in Canada, and awaiting a final decision on their work permit, to start a new job more quickly.

In 2020, the federal government also launched the three-year Agri-Food Pilot. While not launched specifically in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, this pilot aims to address labour needs in the agri-food sector by providing a new permanent residence pathway for certain agri-food workers.

Occupational Health and Safety Considerations

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Orders in Council made pursuant to the Quarantine Act have required most TFWs to self-isolate for at least 14 days upon arriving in Canada. The latest Order in Council is in effect until 21 February 2021.

Employers are expected to facilitate their employees’ self-isolation by, for example, arranging access to food, medicine and other necessities of life. Employers who must provide accommodation under the TFWP, such as SAWP employers, must house quarantining workers separately from others, provide adequate space if there are workers quarantining together, and supply cleaning materials to ensure adequate sanitation. Employers must also provide information about preventing the spread of COVID-19.

To help employers in the farming, fish harvesting, and food production and processing sectors with some of the costs associated with the mandatory quarantine period, the federal government announced the Mandatory Isolation Support for Temporary Foreign Workers Program on 13 April 2020. Provided they are not found in violation of the mandatory isolation period, employers can receive a maximum of $1,500 for each TFW.

After the mandatory quarantine period, employers and TFWs must continue to follow all public health measures and occupational health and safety requirements. Fines and other penalties may be imposed against those who do not comply.

However, several outbreaks have been reported in places employing TFWs, including in meat processing plants and farms. Some temporary foreign workers have died as a result. The federal government announced the Emergency Processing Fund on 5 May 2020 to help food processors and manufacturers implement health and safety requirements related to COVID-19.

Additional measures were announced on 31 July 2020, including strengthening the employer inspections regime – particularly on farms – and the Emergency On-Farm Support Fund. This fund helps farmers with the cost of direct infrastructure improvements to living quarters and work stations, and other health and safety measures.

Financial and Other Supports for Temporary Foreign Workers

A TFW’s employment period begins upon their arrival in Canada and includes the initial mandatory quarantine. During the quarantine period, the employer is required to pay the worker regular wages for a minimum of 30 hours per week.

Employers hiring through the low-wage and primary agriculture streams may also be required to provide private health insurance coverage until the worker becomes eligible for the provincial/territorial health care plan.

If workers contract COVID-19 after the initial quarantine period, they may be eligible for paid or unpaid sick leave, depending on the terms of their employment contract and the applicable employment standards legislation. A new unpaid, job-protected leave related to COVID-19 has been temporarily introduced at the federal level and in most provincial jurisdictions.

Finally, if TFWs contract COVID-19 at work, they may be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. Workers may also be eligible for financial support under the Employment Insurance Act or the Canada Recovery Benefits Act.

Additional Resources

Bashar Abu Taleb, Julie Béchard, Madalina Chesoi and Natacha Kramski, The Movement of Goods and People In and Out of Canada in a COVID-19 World, Library of Parliament, 3 April 2020.

Julie Béchard and Laurence Brosseau, Temporary Immigration Measures in Response to COVID-19, HillNotes, Library of Parliament, 31 August 2020.

Eleni Kachulis and Mayra Perez-Leclerc, Temporary Foreign Workers in Canada, Library of Parliament, 16 April 2020.

Regulations Amending the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations (Emergencies Act and Quarantine Act), SOR/2020-91, 20 April 2020, in Canada Gazette, Part II, 20 April 2020.

For additional information about the benefits TFWs may be eligible for, please refer to Mayra Perez-Leclerc, Income Support and Other Protections Available to Federally Regulated Employees During the COVID-19 Pandemic, HillNotes, Library of Parliament, 19 January 2021.

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

Categories: COVID-19, Employment and Labour

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