Immigration: The New Normal
Lawyer Evelyn Ackah discusses Canada’s aging population , and why we must aggressively recruit foreign workers
By Laurie J. Blake
It’s hard to focus on much else lately, when all the news is on the doom and gloom of the global economic scene. But, one thing’s for sure: whether market fluctuations, the debt crises in the U.S. and Europe and uncertainty over further recession prove to be short- or long-term issues, there’s a larger dark cloud looming on the horizon for most Canadian organizations and their HR professionals. Within the next 10-15 years, the crest of the massive workforce wave of baby boomers will have left the workforce, taking their skills and experience with them into retirement. Organizations need to determine now how they plan to replace this talent.
According to Statistics Canada, much of that replacement workforce will not come from the Canadian-born population. In 2006, only one-third of the Canadian population growth was provided by natural increase; international immigration accounted for the remaining two-thirds. By 2030, deaths in Canada are expected to outnumber births, meaning that immigration would be the only growth factor for our population.
So, what’s happening within the Canadian scene to encourage and attract immigration, and, more particularly, skilled and professional foreign workers? A recent backgrounder from Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) reported that, in 2010, Canada admitted 182,000
temporary foreign workers. Taking into account foreign workers already in Canada, this means there were 283,000 individuals in Canada as temporary foreign workers at the end of 2010.
HR Professional talked with Evelyn Ackah, founder and managing lawyer of Ackah Business Immigration Law, based in Calgary, AB. Ackah provides her expertise to corporate clients in the development and implementation of immigration strategies to secure desired business objectives and advises clients on immigration matters involving employee mobility and relocation. She assists multinational corporations with Canadian and U.S. immigration and citizenship law, and with the establishment of new businesses and cross-border business travel, in order to facilitate employment, business development or foreign investment. She regularly providesfwritten and oral submissions to embassies, high commissions and consulates throughout Canada, the U.S. and visa posts throughout the world. In addition, she prepares and submits immigration applications pursuant to NAFTA, GATS and the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.
HRP: Immigration law and policy seems to change frequently. Is there, as has been said, a “new normal” developing in this area?
EA: I use that term with my clients all the time. The government can make signifi cant changes to both the focus and the framework of immigration through either legislation and/or policy. Immigration law and policy is never static and the challenge is staying up with the latest changes. Whatever the “new normal” is – a changed form, for instance – that’s what we have to use. It’s important for organizations hiring foreign workers, and their HR departments, to know about changes and the impact of those changes, which is why I often recommend that they have a particular person – an external advisor or someone internally – dedicated to this area.
HRP: What has caused the government to make changes?
EA: At the height of the employment boom, from the mid-2000s to mid-2008, the emphasis was on finding workers. It was almost impossible to keep up with the demand. Employers were running loose, many not paying foreign workers what they were owed, sending them to work in other provinces without revising work permits and basically not following the terms of employment. When the job market slowed down in late 2008/early 2009, it provided a bit of a breather enabling the federal government to begin introducing more rules surrounding the recruitment and use of temporary foreign workers. The growth appears to be coming back, but it’s not as frenetic as that in the mid-2000s.
HRP: What are some of the recent changes affecting business and immigration?
EA: Most recently, as of April 1, 2011, regulatory changes designed to protect temporary foreign workers (TFWs) will assess each job offer using new criteria. The government will now assess the job offer more fully and ensure compliance with the terms and conditions of work are being met. There is now also a cap of four years on the length of time a foreign worker may work in Canada; this cap did not exist before. The government is also creating a “bad employers” list. This will be a list of those employers who are not complying and/or not properly treating the foreign workers they hire. These “bad employers” will be banned for two years from participating in the foreign worker program and the list will be posted on the CIC website.
HRP: Who is on that “bad employers” list?
EA: It’s so new that there aren’t any names on it yet. That’s causing some unease because no one knows how strict the government will be. The CIC says employers won’t be added to the list lightly. They’ll get warnings and chances to fi x the problems. We are advising our clients not to take any chances, and make sure they know and comply 100 per cent with all the rules.
HRP: Why has there been a move to cap the number of years a foreign worker can remain in Canada?
EA: The program has always been for temporary workers, but before the new provisions came into effect, these temporary workers stayed for 5, 6, 7 years. Now, they have to return to their home countries after the four-year period, and they won’t be granted another work permit in Canada for an additional four years.
HRP: Why aren’t employers helping the TFWs become permanent residents?
EA: Often, it’s simply that no one thinks about it, or plans for it. The process to become a permanent resident takes time and is expensive; it can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 to go through the process. And, once the worker becomes a permanent resident, there is nothing to keep them working for the original employer. One way to solve this type of problem is to discuss the idea of some kind of written retention agreement with the potential new Canadian, in which they agree to pay back some of the legal costs by remaining in the employ of the original employer for a certain amount of time. Employers need to start planning their workforce needs and take into consideration whether they want to get involved in helping valuable TFWs become permanent residents.
HRP: Bill C-35, which was originally called the “Cracking Down on Crooked Consultants Act” came into force on June 30, 2011. What does this mean for employers and TFWs?
EA: It’s another way the government is strengthening the protection of TFWs, and employers, by making it an offence for anyone other than an authorized agent to charge fees to consult and conduct business at any stage of an application or proceeding. These agents must be in compliance with legislated requirements, act in good faith and meet industry standards. Bill C-35 and the other legislative changes we’ve discussed are generally positive steps. The challenges and frustrations with the new provisions arise because it will take a year or so before we really know how they will be rolled out and how strict or fl exible the government will be in enforcing them.
HRP: Are foreign workers and newly arrived Canadians our future workforce? If so, what are the concerns and challenges in integrating them into the Canadian workforce?
EA: Yes, Canada has an ageing population and what are we doing about it? While our recruitment focus should be getting Canadian-born workers to fill jobs fi rst, there are numerous jobs that Canadian workers will not, or cannot, fill. For instance, there are low-skilled jobs that Canadians aren’t particularly interested in doing; and, at the other end of the scale, there are some highly skilled jobs that we just don’t have the qualifi ed people to fill.
HRP: The Alberta Federation of Labour issued a press release recently claiming that Alberta employers were turning to TFWs in favour of local workers. Do you think this is the case?
EA: The Labour Market Opinion Process, which is the process an employer must undertake to make an application to hire TFWs, takes about two years to complete and requires that the unions at the employer’s workplace are on board. The unions have to agree with the hiring of the TFWs; these TFWs cannot be brought in as some kind of “scab” workers. In fact, many trades are actively pushing to allow more skilled trades workers to come to Canada. Their members are also ageing and there are some extremely skilled tradespeople not only in Europe, but also in Asia and Africa, who could really add value to our workforce.
HRP: Speaking of skills, how is Canada doing in the area of recognizing foreign training and credentials?
EA: We’re still a long way from where we should be. Of course, through the TFW program, the employer is identifying the skill sets and the particular worker, or workers, who possess them. But for those thinking of immigrating to Canada, they need to fi nd out how their education and credentials will be accepted here before they come, and what they need to do to upgrade them. There are programs such as Career Bridge, a paid internship program that provides new Canadians opportunities in mid-level professional positions for 4-12 months. But there are too few of them. What’s worrisome is that many other countries are becoming more aggressive in recruiting immigrants. They recognize they need foreigntrained workers and professionals. Canada is going to get left behind.
HRP: So what does Canada need to do so we don’t miss out on recruiting the best of this workforce?
EA: Some Canadian companies are already doing it. I have clients who go all over the world to meet and test skilled workers. But, it’s expensive and the drive needs to come from a higher level – the government. For professionals, for instance, the challenges are spaces to be able to upgrade or qualify for Canadian credentialing, as well as creating the spaces to be hired. This is something the government has to do.
HRP: What’s HR’s role in this process?
EA: HR’s role is key. They are often the fi rst people TFWs or new Canadian workers meet within a company when they start a job. More important, if these workers aren’t able to integrate into the company, and into the community, they are not going to be happy or want to stay in Canada. This is something that HR can either facilitate or source resources for the new worker. Recruiting and hiring TFWs is expensive, as it is for any worker, and companies need that investment to pay off by keeping the workers they’ve brought in to do special jobs.