A record 193,000 temporary foreign workers received Canadian work permits last year to fill labour shortages - 80,000 more than came in 2004 - as Ottawa expanded the intake to respond to employers' demand for staff.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said the sharp recession that struck Canada in late 2008 has hardly put a damper on employers' requests for temporary foreign workers in the first half of 2009, nor have new restrictions, such as a requirement that all jobs be advertised in Canada first, imposed by the government this spring.
"I expected to see a decline, but I was quite surprised to actually see demand for temporary foreign workers steady in the first quarter of this year, and down only slightly in the second quarter," he said in an interview.
Mr. Kenney said the numbers of temporary workers are not expected to squeeze out people recruited as permanent skilled workers, but that more highly skilled temporary workers will eventually stay.
An immediate job allows many immigrants to hit the ground running and have a better shot at success, he said.
A new study sponsored by Toronto's Maytree Foundation, however, argues the growth of temporary work permits is part of a shift in immigration policy to filling short-term job gaps that has gone too far, and will hurt Canada's economy in the long run.
An increasing number are coming as temporary workers or foreign students, some hoping to stay, while the number of those recruited permanently as skilled workers has stayed flat.
Author Naomi Alboim, a Queen's University fellow and former senior bureaucrat, said that diverting resources to temporary workers slows processing of permanent skilled workers, hampering Canada's ability to recruit the best.
In 2008, for the first time, the combined numbers of temporary workers and foreign students, 272,520, surpassed the number of new permanent residents, 247,202. However, there are now more ways for them to stay under provincial programs or a new Canadian Experience Class program.
In the past, Canada typically brought in the lion's share of its immigrants under the Federal Skilled Worker program - which rates applicants with points for things like university degrees, job experience and whether they can speak English or French. Last year, the Conservative government decided to limit the processing of applications under that category to 38 job descriptions.
But research shows those with better overall qualifications do better in the long run than those chosen to quickly fill a job - because they adapt better to economic changes, and find new work faster if they lose a job, Prof. Alboim said.
"We're reducing the number of people assessed on human capital, who we know do best, in favour of a whole lot of temporary people - and, by the way, an increasing proportion of those people are low-skilled people," she said.
In the first six months of 2009, Canada issued 95,060 work permits for specific jobs - almost half of last year's record total, though 9,000 less than in the first half of 2008.
The numbers of temporary workers had already mushroomed by more than 70 per cent from 2004 to 2008, from about 113,000 to 193,000.
Many came under perennial categories such as nannies and seasonal farm workers. But statistics for 2005 to 2007 show large increases in trades like carpenters, welders and pipefitters, and, especially in Alberta, unskilled labourers such as meatpackers, food-plant workers and kitchen staff.
Statistics don't yet show why demand remained high as unemployment rose from 6.2 per cent a year ago to 8.6 per cent last month, or how many temporary foreign workers already in Canada have been thrown out of work.
Those who lose jobs can stay in Canada until their work permits run out, often two years, and usually they aren't eligible for employment insurance. They can only take a job from another employer who has convinced the government that it faces a labour shortage.
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said there have been two trends: highly skilled temporary workers at stalled oil sands projects and construction sites suffered heavy layoffs, but service-sector workers "flipping burgers and changing beds in hotels" have not.
More Canadians are willing to take those jobs now, but some employers feel guest workers work uncomplainingly for less, he argued.
Mr. Kenney said the government has taken steps to better align immigration to the job market, and many companies would have gone out of business without temporary workers - such as an immigrant in his riding who two years ago feared he'd have to shut his two Subway stores because he couldn't keep up with the wage expectations of Calgary teenagers.
Globe and Mail, Wed July 23 2009
Byline: Campbell Clark