From a recent column in the TJ:
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. You could make the same claim about the road to economic prosperity.
The federal government’s new clamp down on temporary foreign workers is an example of how a well-intended public policy could end up causing very negative economic impacts in the longer term.
In recent years, an increasing number of employers have relied on the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program to provide employees for a number of industries including seafood processing, agriculture, transportation, retail and food services. Firms recruited workers from other countries using the TFW program as a relatively easy way to fill holes in the labour market. If the employer and the employee were satisfied after the trial period, the foreign worker would start down the path to citizenship.
For the most part, anecdotal evidence indicates most firms have been very happy with the TFW program and the immigrant workers are highly productive and motivated to build their careers and lives in Canada.
Looking at the relatively high unemployment rate and the wide use of Employment Insurance in places like New Brunswick, the federal government decided that employers should be doing more to recruit locals into available positions.
So it has started to crack down on the TFW program in at least three ways: 1) requiring employers to provide a plan for how they will fill available positions in the future with local people; 2) making it harder for temporary workers to continue to stay in Canada after an initial period; and 3) by raising the fees charged to employers for accessing the TFW program.
In theory, this is a good policy response. We should be filling jobs with local people before relying on foreign workers. Chronically high unemployment and widespread use of public income support programs such as Employment Insurance has negative social and economic consequences. We should absolutely be doing more to raise the overall employment rate among New Brunswick residents.
But what if this well-intended policy holds back the economic growth potential of the province – particularly in its urban centres?
This is more than just a theoretical discussion. I have talked with several employers and have heard about others that are frustrated by the new TFW policies and may delay further investment as a result.
Even more ominous, several firms with national operations have said they may expand elsewhere (such as in the Toronto area) because it is easier to attract immigrant workers in those locations.
The number one priority of the federal and provincial governments in New Brunswick must be getting this province back to at least a moderate level economic growth. Public policies that make it harder to recruit qualified staff from anywhere could stifle the province’s nascent growth potential.
Take the example of Greater Moncton. Access to an available, motivated and quality workforce has probably been the single biggest contributor to 20 years of relatively strong economic growth. Employers consistently raved about the quality and availability of the workforce.
Now many of those same employers are saying it is getting harder to recruit staff particularly in certain sectors of the economy such as transportation, retail, food services and customer contact centres.
If local people will not take available jobs or will not remain in them longer than a few months, why should the employer be penalized?
They are not going to Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa to find workers for the fun of it. If they could recruit and retain highly motivated workers from New Brunswick they would certainly prefer to do so.
In the long term we need to rebuild a culture of work in this province. People should want to work and work hard and should be equipped with the skills to do the available jobs.
But if they won’t – and government takes away access to the workers that will – it could end up being just another nail in New Brunswick’s economic coffin.