We spoke to Professor Mikal Skuterud, an expert in the economics of immigration, to help us understand what is happening right now and what COVID-19 will mean for the future of these programs.

How do temporary foreign workers contribute to Canada’s economy?

Just as refugees receive greater media attention than other Canadian immigrants, despite them consistently accounting for less than 15% of overall Canadian immigration in any given year, Canadians tend to associate temporary foreign workers with seasonal migrant workers, when in fact agricultural workers account for little more than 15% of all temporary foreign admissions in recent years. Over time, Canada's temporary foreign workers, who now make up close to 3% of Canada’s employed labour force, have become increasingly skilled and a growing source of Canada's new permanent residents. The largest and fastest-growing group of temporary foreign workers are international students graduating from Canadian postsecondary institutions. The economic contribution of these new Canadians will almost certainly grow in the years ahead.

What does the current situation, particularly in Ontario, mean for the political future of this program?

The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, which is just one of dozens of temporary foreign worker programs in Canada, has received much attention in the media in recent weeks due to the COVID-19 outbreaks and tragic deaths of workers employed through this program. Temporary foreign workers employed through Canada's Global Skills Strategy Program have also been in the news recently, as the Trump administration has opted to reduce employer access to temporary work permits in the United States. This provides Canada with an opportunity to better compete for these exceptionally talented workers, many of whom are employed in IT fields. 

While the Seasonal Agricultural Worker and Global Skills Strategy programs are starkly different in terms of the types of workers who are employed, they both exist to provide Canadian employers with access to a supply of workers who employers argue are unavailable domestically, at least at the wage and salaries they are able or willing to pay. While there have been multiple concerted political efforts to curtail these programs over the years in response to controversy, especially during recessions when Canadians are experiencing more unemployment themselves, the fact is that temporary foreign workers comprise a larger share of Canadian employment than they ever have in Canadian history, and there is no indication that the growth is going to decline any time soon.  

Should temporary foreign worker programs exist?

Canada's temporary foreign worker programs will undoubtedly continue to exist as Canada increasingly moves towards a "two-step" immigration system, in which skilled immigrants are initially brought to Canada on temporary work permits or student visas, but then transition to permanent residency after some years spent living in Canada. The option to transition to permanent residency is, however, by and large, closed off to low-skilled workers, such as those employed through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. An important policy question is whether these workers should be given the option to settle permanently in Canada. 

The University of Waterloo has a number of experts available for comment on various aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, click here to see the up-to-date list.

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