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Temporary foreign workers from Mexico plant strawberries on a farm in Mirabel, Que., on May 6, 2020.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Over the past two decades, Canadian employers have steadily ramped up their use of foreign labour. That trend is poised to accelerate this year.

On Monday, the federal government announced several changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program that will allow employers to hire more workers from abroad, particularly for low-wage positions. The move – aimed at easing labour shortages – was applauded by business groups.

In announcing the changes, the government mentioned TFWs account for just 0.4 per cent of Canada’s work force and will remain a small part of it. At the end of 2021, there were 82,150 TFW permit holders, according to government figures – a fair bit lower than peak years for the program.

But Ottawa’s statement omits a key source of temporary foreign workers: the International Mobility Program. There were almost 700,000 IMP permit holders at the end of last year, up more than 600 per cent from 20 years ago. They range from recent graduates of Canadian universities to company transfers from abroad. After combining both programs, temporary foreign workers account for roughly 4 per cent of the work force.

Unlike the TFW program, employers can hire foreign workers through IMP without filling out a labour market impact assessment, which demonstrates the company is unable to find local workers to fill positions.

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Still, the full extent of foreign labour in Canada is unknown, said Mikal Skuterud, an economics professor at the University of Waterloo. International students in Canada can get jobs without a work permit, subject to restrictions, and their enrolment has soared in recent years.

“The question is: What per cent [of foreign students] are working? We have no idea,” Prof. Skuterud said.

This week’s TFW changes have been criticized by various labour groups and economists. Under the program, workers are tied to individual employers, which stifles the mobility and bargaining power of labourers who, in many cases, want to become permanent residents of Canada.

“This carrot makes them even more willing to accept substandard wages and working conditions,” Prof. Skuterud said. “They can be exploited very easily.”

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