The federal government announced an increase in the percentage of temporary foreign workers (TFWs) two months ago that employers in Canada will be allowed to hire. Given a ready solution to the labour shortage problem, many businesses breathed a collective sigh of relief.
We can expect employers in the Bow Valley will be taking advantage of this policy change. But we need to ask ourselves if TFWs are the most appropriate solution to our labour shortage problem and if we truly are ready to receive these workers into our communities.
The Temporary Foreign Worker Program was started in 2005 by the federal government to provide seasonal and temporary workers for certain sectors in the economy. Low wages and poor working conditions in these sectors meant that employers were unable to attract Canadian workers to fill these jobs.
Instead of increasing pay, or improving working conditions to make jobs more desirable for Canadians, employers lobbied the government for access to foreign workers. And instead of legislating higher minimum wages and enforcing workplace protections, governments granted employers this access.
In an unspoken collusion, government and employers agreed to grow the economy and corporate profits by exploiting workers from low-income countries. Workers admitted into the country were forced to separate from their families, denied the security of knowing if they could remain in Canada and denied job or employer choice.
Before the pandemic, the federal government was looking to scrap the TFW program for several reasons. Canadian employers were growing reliant on TFWs to fill permanent jobs. There was also serious concern over a lack of basic rights and protections for migrant workers with many reported incidents of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. However, faced with current labour shortages, the federal government has done an about-face on their TFW policy and chosen the easy way out.
Even if the federal government is allowing recruitment of more TFWs, we have to ask ourselves if Bow Valley communities are ready to receive them. Do we have the capacity to support the people that we are asking to staff our businesses, service our tourists and ultimately generate our profits?
We know that the levels of tourism in the Bow Valley have already exceeded the boundaries of environmental and social sustainability. For anyone who spends time outdoors in the Bow Valley, the evidence of environmental degradation is plain to see. In popular areas, we see wide braided trails, trampled vegetation and soil erosion. We see litter on the side of our hiking and biking trails and an increase in human-wildlife conflict.
There are other less visible impacts on our natural environment. Increased greenhouse gas emissions and climate change acceleration occur from ever more tourists arriving by air and ground transportation. And increased visitation also leads to adverse effects on air and water quality.
Evidence that we have breached the social boundaries of sustainability in the Bow Valley is equally abundant. We live in communities where housing is too expensive and food security is not guaranteed. The majority of jobs available in the Bow Valley are low-pay, low-skill jobs that do not pay a living wage to employees or allow them to achieve a decent quality of life.
The labour shortage has also resulted in overworked staff who are burnt out and sustain physical injuries from working long hours in physically-demanding jobs. When workers are injured or simply want a family doctor to help them maintain their health, we are unable to provide them with the health services they need.
However tempting it might be to turn to TFWs as a Band-Aid solution to our labour shortage problems, we know we can do better. Our economic and labour policies cannot be built on a foundation of exploitation. If we are inviting foreign workers into our country to help grow our economy, we need to give them the same rights we enjoy – the right to live in Canada with their family, the security of permanent residency and choice of job and employer. Governments and employers need to invest in job training, improving working conditions, and strengthening worker protections to benefit Canadian and immigrant workers alike.
We need to recognize, encourage and utilize the assets that immigrants bring to Canada. Many newcomers are leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs with professional training and experience far beyond the requirements of the menial jobs they are hired to do. If we really want to leverage the strengths of immigrants to fortify the Canadian economy, we have to provide pathways for their training and experience to be recognized and offer them employment that matches their competencies.
We also need to make sure that our communities are welcoming and inclusive. At a minimum, this means ensuring that basic human needs are adequately met. We need to provide a living wage, offer decent and affordable housing and ensure access to healthy food and quality primary care.
If we are unable to provide this for all Bow Valley residents, including newcomers, then we need to acknowledge that we have exceeded the limits of our communities to support current levels of tourism and the services they demand. For the sake of our planet and our people, it is time to stop living beyond our means.
Vamini Selvanandan is a family physician and public health practitioner in the Bow Valley. Her commentaries appear in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on the third Thursday of each month. For more articles like this, visit www.engagedcitizen.ca.