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Don Wright: Why did Justin Trudeau switch sides in the 'class struggle?'

There is not so much a worker shortage as a shortage of people willing to work for low wages
Jason LeBlanc Justin Trudeau
Justin Trudeau once argued for a reduction in the Temporary Foreign Worker program. Then he became prime minister.

In 2014, Justin Trudeau wrote an op-ed arguing that the Stephen Harper government should dramatically scale back the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program.

His reasoning was sound – both in moral terms and in economic terms. He wrote: “I believe it is wrong for Canada to follow the path of countries who exploit large numbers of guest workers.” He also pointed out that large numbers of TFWs “drives down wages.”

We might have expected, therefore, that things would change under his leadership. And indeed, they have. Between 2015 and 2022 the number of TFWs in Canada doubled!

But TFWs are actually only a small fraction of total Non-Permanent Residents (NPR) with work permits in Canada. There is another category known as the “International Mobility Program” (IMP) which provides work permits for international students, graduates of post-secondary programs and other categories. The number of IMP work permit holders almost tripled between 2015 and 2022. In total, NPRs with work permits now exceed 1.1 million people – and have grown from 2.1 per cent to 5.5 per cent of the Canadian labour force.

This hasn’t happened by accident. The current government has made a series of changes that have opened the door to higher numbers of NPRs. Last year, for example, the federal immigration minister made it significantly easier for employers to get permits for TFWs.

Perhaps more significantly, he eliminated the restriction on the number of hours that international students could work while they are supposedly studying. Previously, the limit was 20 hours a week. There are no limits on the number of international students that can be granted a student permit. All they need is acceptance from a “Designated Learning Institution.” In addition to the publicly funded universities, colleges and institutions, there are a large number of private, for-profit colleges that are in this business as well.

One doesn’t have to be too cynical to imagine that some private college operators would market themselves as a way to get a work permit in Canada, with a possible path to permanent resident status down the road, with the quality of the education being offered of secondary importance. Indeed, a casual search of the web will uncover many such stories.

One needs to be only a little more cynical to conclude that this was the federal government’s intention in lifting the restriction on working while studying. What an easy way to appease the demands from many in the employer community to deal with the “worker shortage.”

The jobs that NPRs fill are disproportionately low wage positions – jobs like food counter attendants, kitchen helpers, cooks, cashiers, retail salespersons, shore shelf stockers, clerks,delivery service drivers, and the like. Statistics Canada reports that, even with high educational attainment, NPRs were in occupations requiring no formal education proportionately more than the rest of the Canadian population.

You know, this kind of sounds like something that “those countries who exploit large numbers of guest workers” would do.

And let’s not lose sight of the other point that Mr. Trudeau made back in 2014. This all serves to depress the wages of Canadian workers. In particular, it disproportionately impacts low-wage earners – if employers couldn’t rely on the large number of NPR workers, they would have to raise the wages that they offer.

Why is the federal government aiding and abetting this? Apparently because they are responding to the consistent mantra from the employer community that there is a “worker shortage.” More precisely, there is a shortage of workers willing to work at the wages that certain employers prefer to pay. But whose side should the federal government be on?

Over the past 20 years “the bosses” have done much better than the workers. For example, Statistics Canada data shows that in 2003 the category of workers defined as “senior managers” on average earned 3.9 times more than the category of workers defined as “sales and service support.” In 2023 the multiple had widened significantly to 5.1 times. Sales and service support occupations include cashiers, service station attendants, store shelf stackers, food, accommodation and tourism workers, and cleaners – typical of the positions filled by many NPR workers.

Given this trend one needs to ask: who needs more help in the struggle for fair wages – the workers or the bosses? Why did the federal government apparently change sides in this struggle?

Don Wright was the former deputy minister to the B.C. Premier, Cabinet Secretary and former head of the B.C. Public Service until late 2020. He now is senior counsel at Global Public Affairs.