As the Quebec government slashes immigration levels this year, it is also overseeing a huge increase in the number of temporary foreign workers coming to the province.
The inflow of temporary workers is helping Quebec deal with an increasingly dire labour shortage, but experts say the strategy is unsustainable economically and makes newcomers more vulnerable to exploitation.
Under the federal temporary foreign worker program, Quebec’s consent is required to bring a worker to the province.
The number of new Quebec employees hired through the program has jumped dramatically in recent months, and not just in the agricultural sector, but other sectors as well, such as tourism, food processing and manufacturing.
In 2018, 17,685 permits were issued to foreigners for temporary work in Quebec, a 36 per cent increase from the previous year, the biggest jump of any of the largest provinces.
The numbers are on track to rise again in 2019. In the first three months after the fall provincial election, the number of active permits rose by 32 per cent compared to the same period the year prior.
Permits were up 21 per cent in the first three months of 2019.
This increase comes despite plans by the Coalition Avenir Québec government to reduce the number of immigrants by 20 per cent this year.
That goal has drawn sharp criticism from business groups, who say they urgently need immigrants to help fill the 120,000 positions currently vacant in the province.
These groups warn the government that with Quebec’s aging population and low birth rate, the labour shortage will only get worse in the years ahead.
Province’s workforce is aging
Quebec’s Immigration Ministry said in a statement the objective of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program is “to meet the urgent and specific needs of Quebec employers facing difficulties in recruiting local workers.”
Economists and business lobby groups, however, are skeptical about the program’s ability to meet the province’s long-term economic needs.
The higher number of temporary workers in the province is indeed helping offset the labour shortage, according to a recent analysis by Scotiabank.
But Marc Desormeaux, a provincial economist with the bank, said it doesn’t address the underlying structural crisis facing the Quebec economy: an aging workforce and shrinking labour pool.
“The question is whether the explosive recent pace of temporary foreign worker intake can be sustained over the longer run,” he said.
Denis Hamel, vice-president of the Conseil du patronat du Québec, a lobby group for employers in the province, likened the rise in temporary foreign workers to a “Band-Aid solution.”
It wasn’t addressing the labour shortage or the backlog in the immigration process, Hamel said.
“Employers have to look at the TFW program because they don’t have a choice. Delays are so long with the regular immigration path that if you want to fulfil a job in a six- to eight-month period you have to turn the TFW,” he said.
Process can take 6 months: lawyer
In order to hire a foreign worker, companies must demonstrate they would otherwise be unable to fill the position, a federally run process known as a Labour Market Impact Assessment.
Foreign workers must also obtain Quebec’s consent through what’s called a Quebec Acceptance Certificate.
Immigration lawyer Ho Sung Kim said the whole process can take up to six months and cost thousands of dollars, which can be prohibitive for a small business, such as a restaurant.
“But they do need people, and they are not able to find people locally, and that’s a big problem,” said Kim, who sits on the board of the Quebec Immigration Lawyers Association.
Moreover, those hoping to become permanent residents also have little recourse if they are mistreated, given their uncertain status.
“It’s not the ideal situation,” said Kim.
“Their stay is temporary and the renewal of the work permit is not always guaranteed and a lot of times they come with their family and want to settle down, and the pathway to permanent residency is less clear.”
The CAQ government is holding legislative hearings in Quebec City to discuss its immigration plan, which envisions a gradual return to the immigration levels hit in 2018, that is, somewhere around 50,000 newcomers.
Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette said Tuesday the province is in talks with the federal government to make the Temporary Foreign Worker Program more flexible.
Business groups countered by saying the red tape involved with the program isn’t the only problem.
The Quebec Restaurant Association, for instance, called on the government to dramatically increase the number of immigrants to satisfy the needs of its members.
“Immigration is an undeniable tool that can alleviate the current labour shortage,” said Vincent Arsenault, head of the organization.