By Zak Vescera, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
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 per cent in December.
“It worries us, but in a good way,” Labour Minister Harry Bains told The Tyee.
“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, over 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 The Tyee’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.
In the period examined by The Tyee, almost 8,000 approved positions were for general farm workers. The second biggest category was cooks. B.C. businesses got the green light to hire nearly 3,000 in the first three quarters of 2022. Food service supervisors came in third place, with more than 2,100 applications.
“If you were to phone any business owner, they would tell you the biggest issue was the labour shortage,” said Ian Tostenson, the president of the BC Restaurant and Foodservices Association.
Tostenson said that’s consistent with what his association hears from their roughly 3,000 members across B.C. The service industry struggled to keep staff during the early years of the COVID-19 pandemic as it weathered restrictions and a plunge in sales. Now, it’s struggling to recruit.
“The question becomes, how do you fill the void?” Tostenson said. In recent years, Tostenson says his association has retained an immigration consultant to facilitate hiring foreign workers. “We’ve probably brought in the last several years close to 3,000 skilled foreign workers into our industry,” he said.
But recently, Tostenson says, they’ve hit delays. The provincial government brought in new rules in 2020 requiring employers hiring temporary foreign workers to register with the Employment Standards Branch, part of a bill meant to protect rights of those employees. But the recent surge of applications has caught the branch off guard.
“Up until September or so on last year, they were pretty steadily [receiving] 200 to 250 applications,” Bains said. “In October they went up to 4,000, and now it’s hovering around that.” The branch, Bains said, is prioritizing applications from sectors like agriculture, given the constraints of the growing season.
Tostenson said some of his members report months-long hold ups. He’s called on government to temporarily scrap the requirement to apply to the province.
“They’re completely overwhelmed, and we are completely underwhelmed by their response,” he said. “We can’t go to the next stage in the immigration process, which is the federal government, until that certificate is approved.”
Chris Atchison, president of the BC Construction Association, views the numbers with some concern. Construction companies are hurting for workers; his industry projects more than 27,600 job openings in the sector by 2027.
But Atchison doesn’t see the Temporary Foreign Worker Program as a solution.
“We’ve always said that the temporary foreign worker model in construction should only be used if there is a pathway to permanent residency. We are not a sector that is wanting to bring people in for short periods of time and send them home,” Atchison said. Most foreign workers are on closed contracts for a specific boss at a specific place for a specific length of time.
“It’s not a desired option. It’s a last resort,” Atchison said.
On paper, temporary foreign workers enjoy the same protections as any other British Columbian employee. In practice, critics say workers are vulnerable to exploitation with little ability to negotiate their conditions of work.
Wages for temporary foreign workers are determined by the federal median wage; a cook in B.C., for example, would be paid $16.25 an hour. Workers who pick fruit would be paid just $16.05 an hour. The vast majority of those workers are on closed permits, meaning they must work for a specific employer in a specific role.
Hugo Velazquez, a senior manager at the Vancouver non-profit MOSIAC, says workers can apply for an open permit if their employer abuses them. But they have to document and provide that proof, which takes work and time.
“In the meantime, they have no income and they have nowhere to live,” Velazquez said. MOSAIC has seen a surge in demand for its services for temporary foreign workers, Velasquez said, including a new program that offers emergency support to migrants who have lost their job or housing. “It’s growing exponentially. All the time we have more clients,” he said.
MOSAIC has called for reforms to the program, Velazquez said, including automatic open work permits for workers in the program and tougher sanctions for employers who break the rules.
“They could still be very productive as part of the workforce of B.C., but they could probably change employers easily when they’re not respected,” Velazquez said.
The single biggest driver of demand for temporary foreign workers continues to be agriculture. In 2021, B.C. welcomed more than 10,000 temporary foreign agricultural workers, Statistics Canada said, compared to just 2,200 in 2007. Of the top 10 employers of temporary foreign workers in B.C. that The Tyee identified in the first three quarters of 2022, nine of them were farms or greenhouses. And demand continues to grow.
“Employers who have been successful in hiring domestic workers in recent years just aren’t able to find those people anymore,” said Reg Ens. Ens is the director of the Western Agriculture Labour Initiative, which works as an intermediary between government and farms to develop labour policies for temporary foreign workers.
The program, Ens said, has become vital to many B.C. farms. But it has also drawn criticism because of the treatment of some of those workers, who depend on their employers for housing as well as wages.
Berenice Diaz Ceballos, Mexico’s consul general in Vancouver, says thousands of Mexican workers come to the province each year for the growing and harvesting seasons. Ceballos has heard stories of “excellent” farmers who treat employees well and even host parties on Sept. 16, Mexico’s Independence Day. But her consulate has also identified long-standing issues with workers’ rights, particularly the housing provided by farmers. At one point, she estimated 60 to 70 per cent of farms visited by consular authorities had inadequate housing.
“They don’t have mattresses. The workers sleep on the floor. In other cases, there is a very worrisome situation where there are no emergency exits or sprinklers inside of the houses,” she said.