Workers from abroad

workers from abroadBy Dennis Furlan

The year 2010 saw 283,096 temporary foreign workers come to Canada, which is the most in our country’s history. As NDP leader Jack Layton said to Conservative Stephen Harper during this year’s election debates: “Why so many temporary foreign workers? We’ve got more of them coming in than immigrants.” This is true. In 2007, also for the first time, more temporary foreign workers were accepted into Canada than permanent residents. What’s all the fuss about, and how could it affect the wood industry? These are questions Wood Industry wanted answers to in this edition’s investigation of the labour market.

Here is what the incumbent prime minister had to say in response to Layton’s question: “We have people who have jobs waiting for them. They almost invariably settle here… To make sure immigrants have work. It helps them adjust. It benefits everybody. I don’t know how anyone would be against it.” What Harper said is generally true and describes the foundation of Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

Unlike the stereotype that might exist regarding temporary workers from abroad, the program was established to bring skilled workers to Canada from overseas. SeppGmeiner is partner for Lignum Consulting and a regular Wood Industry columnist. As Gmeiner describes it, “When people hear the words ‘foreign temporary worker,’ the first thing they think of is seasonal migrant workers — Mexicans going to work in gardens and farms.”

“However,” says Gmeiner, “this is not the case. For example, in the woodworking industry there are a lot of people from engineering schools like those in Europe — Rosenheim, for example, which is one of the woodworking schools in Germany — and you can bring them here for training as long as you get them a temporary work permit. You then become their sponsor for the time that they end up working for you here on a temporary basis.”

It should be noted that, although the original intent of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program was to bring in skilled workers, and is still its main focus, recent changes have loosened the requirements somewhat. In 2002, the federal government allowed low-skilled workers to come in for industries like hospitality, construction and manufacturing. This, in part, accounts for the growth in the program, as well as for such questions as those posed by Layton in the leaders’ debate.

Another one of those questions is what happens to the temporary workers once they come here. Jean-Philippe Brunet is chair of the business immigration and international mobility team at the law firm Ogilvy Renault in Montreal. According to Brunet, “Federal governments, both Liberal and Conservative, have put procedures in place to make it easier for temporary foreign workers to obtain permanent status if everything goes well.”

Gmeiner expands on this issue: “If an employer brings over a worker from overseas, then that worker is linked to the company for as long as they have temporary status. However, if the employee eventually gets permanent status, then the employee is no longer linked. The status of the employee, from an immigration standpoint, becomes independent of the employer.”

However, before any of that can happen, an employer has to decide if he even wants to engage in the process of hiring a temporary foreign worker in the first place. As Brunet explains, “What your readers should understand is the process can be very simple, affordable, and timely, if they know how it works. If that’s the case, it can take a few weeks to hire someone, bring them over, and have them stay for as long as 18 months on one work permit.”

According to Brunet, the basic requirement to be met before seeking foreign workers as an option is that there are no Canadians available who have the specific skill to do the job. He says, “Since January 1, 2009, all employers have to demonstrate two weeks of national recruitment in the three months preceding the recruitment of a foreign worker. That can be a posting on the Canada job bank, which is completely free. It can be in a woodworking magazine, or any publication that advertises job openings.”

These are the kinds of requirements attached to what Brunets describes as the “normal procedure” for hiring such workers. However, Brunet is quick to point out all kinds of exemptions that are options for people in the wood industry. One such option involves the buying of machinery from foreign firms. According to Brunet, “If the selling company has its own workers from overseas who install the machine, then they may not even need a work permit. They can show up with company documentation, be allowed entry, and then do the necessary work. It can be that simple.”

Another approach has less to do with getting skilled workers and more to do with global networking. According to Brunet, “There is a youth program where an employer can bring over, say, the son of a c.e.o.from Europe to learn English or something. It might sound a bit silly, but you’d be surprised at how much such moves facilitate relationships with people across the globe. If the c.e.o.can trust a person, company, and country with his son, he might well trust them with his business, too.”

Gmeiner has seen first-hand the kinds of benefits temporary foreign workers can bring to a work site. He says, “I know of a company that brought in two 19-year-old cabinet makers who just completed their apprenticeship programs in Europe. These two kids could do jobs that some of the older workers couldn’t do. They could work right off the drawings. They were able to train others. They completely increased the skill level for the whole company.”

Gmeiner, who himself came to Canada as a temporary foreign worker, and has brought a few of them over through the years, believes the process can be very beneficial to woodworkers and is not very difficult. In fact, according to Gmeiner, sometimes it’s even easier than usual. He says, “At one point, cabinetmakers were one of the occupations labelled by the government as having a shortage. In that case, we could skip some of the steps and bring workers over even quicker.”

If conclusions are to be drawn from Wood Industry’s examination of the labour market, one of them is that the process of hiring temporary foreign workers in Canada doesn’t have to be complicated. As importantly, many options exist, especially for the wood industry. These workers can meet needs that local people can’t, can add to a company’s skill level, improve networking, and so much more. It’s a labour option available to any business looking for an edge in a competitive market.

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