B.C. businesses are hiring a record number of temporary foreign workers as they struggle to fill jobs.
The latest federal data show there were more than 32,200 people in B.C. under the federal government’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program at the end of 2022, more than Ontario, which has more than twice B.C.’s population.
It’s a sign that companies—especially restaurants, farms, construction firms and retailers—are increasingly reliant on importing workers. They point to a tight labour market, with B.C.’s unemployment rate at 4.2% in December.
“It worries us, but in a good way,” Labour Minister Harry Bains said. “It means our economy is booming. It’s running on all cylinders, and we have more jobs than people available.”
The federal Temporary Foreign Worker Program allows Canadian businesses to hire foreigners for up to two years if they can demonstrate they were unable to hire a Canadian resident for the position.
Those employers are also required to register with the provincial Employment Standards Branch. In 2021, the branch received 2,955 applications from employers. In 2022 it received more than 12,300, more than 10,000 of them in the last four months of the year.
The surge is partially attributable to new federal regulations in September that urged businesses to register with provincial labour departments and follow their rules.
But industry representatives say there is growing demand for foreign labour, particularly in sectors like hospitality, construction and agriculture where companies are struggling to hire and retain staff.
Some industry associations say foreign workers have become vital to their businesses as they compete for employees in a tight labour market. Others, though, say they would much rather hire workers with a clear path to residency, unlike temporary workers who generally only stay in the country for one or two years. Critics of the program say workers are poorly paid and vulnerable to exploitation.
“The Temporary Foreign Worker Program often places workers in vulnerable positions, at the mercy of their employer,” BC Federation of Labour president Sussanne Skidmore said. “And the same is true of migrant and undocumented workers of all kinds, who play a critical role in key areas of our economy.”
Employment and Social Development Canada says there is growing demand for those workers because of the nation’s low unemployment rate. The program received more than 5,000 applications per month in October 2021, the department said. By November 2022, that was up to more than 8,000 applications a month.
In B.C., the program is often associated with agriculture, and farm workers make up the largest category of employee sought by companies.
But Glacier Media’s analysis of data from the first three quarters of 2022 also show mounting demand for cooks, carpenters, general labourers and retail assistants as those sectors struggle to find staff.
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