The considerable number of temporary foreign workers who have the prospect of becoming Canadian permanent residents are vulnerable to exploitation – in part because of particular rules that govern their employment. As debate about temporary labour migration continues, this dynamic requires critical attention.

Canadians have become more familiar with the scale of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), which allowed 213,573 such workers to be admitted in 2012. This was almost double the number of TFWs who entered in 2002 (110,613) and equal to 82 percent of the total number of permanent residents admitted in 2012.

Controversies of the past 18 months have confirmed what many long suspected: that some employers are not making every effort to hire Canadians before resorting to the TFWP. Examples range from HD Mining (a Chinese company that attempted to exclude Canadians from a mine in BC by requiring fluency in Mandarin) to the pizza restaurant in Weyburn, Saskatchewan that replaced a waitress with 28 years’ service with a TFW.

Part of the controversy concerns the use of labour market opinions (LMOs) issued by Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), the department headed by Jason Kenney. LMOs are intended to confirm that no Canadian worker is available to do a particular job. In 2013 the federal government made certain changes to tighten the LMO process. Incidents such as the one in Weyburn led to Kenney’s moratorium on further recruitment of TFWs for the food service sector and a promise of further reform.

Kenney hammers the point that abuse of the program’s hiring rules by employers won’t be tolerated. He is right to do so. However, more light needs to be shed on ways the program contributes to the exploitation of TFWs in certain sectors who have a pathway to permanent residence – and, in due course, to Canadian citizenship.

Under the oldest of these, the Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP), participants have closed visas: they are authorized to work only for the employer who obtained the LMO and must live in their residence. Caregivers who accumulate 24 months of full-time employment within four years, or 3,900 hours over a minimum of 22 months, may apply for permanent residence. Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) expects that a total of 17,500 caregivers, their spouses and dependants will be admitted in 2014.

In a study based on extensive interviews for the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP), Jelena Atanackovic and Ivy Lynn Bourgeault demonstrated how LCP rules can lead to exploitation – for example, employers requiring caregivers to work overtime without pay http://bit.ly/1kGfEap. Caregivers in such situations may hold back from approaching the relevant government authorities. If they are found out, there may be fired and deported.

The Canadian Experience Class, a federal program launched in 2009, allows higher-skilled TFWs with at least 12 months of full-time Canadian work experience in the preceding three years to apply for permanent residence. The following jobs are eligible: managerial (National Occupational Classification (NOC) skill type 0), professional (NOC A) and technical jobs and skilled trades (NOC B). International students who meet program criteria are also eligible to apply under the CEC. In 2012, 6,816 persons (including families) were admitted through the Canadian Experience Class. The program’s growing popularity led CIC to introduce a cap of 12,000 on applications in 2014.

Additional pathways to permanent residence are provided by Provincial Nominee Programs (PNPs), which allow provincial governments select potential immigrants. In a number of cases, access for TFWs is broader than for the Canadian Experience Class. For example, Alberta accepts applications from semiskilled workers (NOC C or D) in food and beverage processing, food services, hotel and lodging, manufacturing, long-haul trucking and heavy-haul trucking. Manitoba’s PNP is not limited to the high-skilled or people working in particular occupational fields. Ontario allows only high-skilled TFWs to apply. PNPs have become the most likely path to residency for TFWs: in 2012, of the 38,067 TFWs who became residents, 34 percent did so though PNPs (see my 2013 IRPP study at http://bit.ly/1h4S7oK).

Because TFWs must have a job offer in qualifying sectors to apply under a PNP, employers play a very important role, including providing advice to help TFWs navigate the application process. Unions are also sometimes involved. For example, in High River, Alberta the local branch of the United Food and Commercial Workers provides an orientation program for TFWs employed at the meat-packing plant who want to become Canadian citizens.

However, not all employers are true facilitators. CBC News reported (May 5, 2014) on advice a recruitment firm provided to Houston Pizza in Estevan, Saskatchewan about managing the expectations of Filipino workers hoping to become permanent residents under the Saskatchewan Immigrant Nominee Program (SINP). The email stated that ”œsince you are supporting them for SINP, you can choose to withdraw their support.” It added: ”œAn employer choosing to withdraw their support is not punishing their workers, rather, showing them [the employer] has the right to support them or not.”

It is clear that the ”˜carrot’ of becoming Canadian can sometimes be used as a stick against qualifying TFWs. Although two-step migration has a number of strong points such as helping potential immigrants begin the integration process, we need to ask some hard questions about the rules governing the initial stage. Should the LCP be reformed, as Atanackovic and Bourgeault suggest, so that caregivers are no longer tied to a single job through a closed visa and obliged to live in their employers’ homes? How can enforcement of labour conditions, largely a provincial government matter, be improved?

There is an urgent need for a broad policy review of the TFWP that goes beyond Kenney’s focus on the LMO process and includes meaningful public consultation. The review should address not only whether pathways to permanent residence should be increased (as the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and others have recommended) but also the rules governing temporary workers’ employment. A pathway to citizenship should not be licence for the ill treatment of qualifying TFWs.