September 5, 2012

Foreign workers are a boon to construction

View from the Board | Bill Stewart

Anti-foreign worker forces - primarily from organized labour - recently ramped up their rhetoric to fiercely oppose a series of announcements designed to make Canada more responsive to meeting urgent labour force needs.

While the arguments against reforms – particularly those relating to the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program – are similar to those made in 2005-08 when construction labour markets spiked, the environment is different now.

Canada’s workforce continued to age.

The problem of aging baby boomers didn’t go away – workers simply got older and retirement horizons continued to grow shorter.

Bill Stewart

View from the Board

Bill Stewart

And, even though contractors set national records in terms of training apprentices, increasing demands for services, particularly in resource related industries, sectors continued squeezing already tight labour markets. In Alberta, we know we’re in trouble when recruiters from Newfoundland and Labrador, where construction is now booming, appear at our doorsteps to lure ex-pat’s home.

Despite the objections of labour leaders, the federal government is moving decisively to get ahead of the curve.

The reforms are particularly welcomed in the construction industry. In April Human Resources and Skills Development (HRSD) Minister Diane Finley announced the Accelerated Labour Market Opinion (A-LMO) program to expedite the processing of applications for TFWs.

Employers that have successfully recruited temporary skilled workers internationally with a positive compliance record in the previous two years are eligible to have new applications fast tracked. While the program is in the early stages of implementation, indications are that this new approach is working exceedingly well.

The recent reforms also recognize the reality that companies do not necessarily pay all workers the same rate.

Accordingly, a 15 per cent wage rate variance is now allowed so long as other Canadian workers in the company are being paid the rate given to the TFWs.

In their zeal to demonize this and the TFW program in general, as a means to drive down wages and opportunities for qualified Canadians, union spokespersons have conveniently and conspicuously omitted acknowledging this requirement.

In July 2012, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced the extension and expansion to the Alberta pilot project.

Employers no longer need HRSD approval to recruit internationally for skilled workers in seven high demand occupations. This move significantly enhances the ability of companies – be they unionized or not – to respond more quickly to the needs of resource developers.

This year, the minister also acknowledged that Canada’s permanent immigration system was ill equipped to deal with construction occupations in high demand.

How bad? Most people, including Members of Parliament, were shocked to learn that fewer than 700 people with construction skills training were admitted annually across the country under the Skilled Worker Program.

In response, the federal government created a new dedicated skilled trades class in the permanent immigrant stream. As opposed to having to qualify under the “points” system, applicants will be assessed on whether they have a valid long-term employment offer or appropriate working credential and experience in a trade.

They must also demonstrate that they have language skills appropriate for their occupation. This is the type of long-term approach to fixing the permanent immigration system that the construction industry has been advocating for years. As 2012 got underway, businesses – particularly in Alberta – were extremely apprehensive about whether Canada’s immigration system would be able to help industry respond to shortages of skilled workers.

While much work still needs to be done to improve the system, the recent series of reforms are being welcomed by industry and will help pave the way to future prosperity for Canadians despite the objections of union leaders.

Bill Stewart is the vice-president of the Merit Contractors Association in Alberta. Bill is also a member of the Journal of Commerce Editorial Advisory Board. Send comments or questions to

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