Canada is ramping up admissions of migrant workers – but will they have decent work?

This column by Armine Yalnizyan was originally published by the Toronto Star on Wednesday December 15, 2021. Armine is a Contributing Columnist to Toronto Star Business featured bi-weekly.

Everything about the COVID-19 driven recession and recovery has turned “normal” on its head.

Here’s another inversion I didn’t have on my pandemic economy bingo card: As expected, recent newcomers were hardest hit by the lockdowns, but, surprisingly, they are also now having more luck finding jobs than longer-term immigrants and people born in Canada, the opposite of historic trends.

Why? Since I’m not writing a murder mystery, behold the smoking gun: public policy. As always, public policy is shaping the future of workers, and the nature of “inclusive recovery.”

This surprising trend is due in large part to the fact that Canadian-born workers are aging out of the workforce and retiring in droves, so fewer are now employed than before the pandemic. This is an ongoing trend I told you about it in my inaugural column.

The pandemic poured accelerant on a dynamic that was slowly building pre-pandemic: more exits from than entrants to the labour market. Unemployment rates fell to half-century lows in the months leading up to February 2020. The pandemic didn’t press pause on the impact of the baby boom and decades of falling birth rates.

Surprise! Labour shortages are now news every day, everywhere.

Typically the made-in-Canada answer to labour shortages is an imported solution: Immigration. But journalists, policy experts and even academics regularly conflate immigration (people entering Canada as permanent residents, making their future here) and migrant workers (people permitted to enter temporarily, to live and work here for a short, fixed term).

Make no mistake, these are two very different groups. Immigrants can, at least theoretically, eventually gain access to all of the same rights as workers born in Canada. But migrant workers don’t know or can’t exercise their labour rights for fear of dismissal or even deportation. That keeps wages low and benefits non-existent, not just for those workers but those who work alongside them.

Recently Canadian employers’ reliance on migrant workers has rapidly escalated. The number of immigrants admitted to Canada would have fallen were it not for a public policy announcement in April 2021 that 90,000 temporary residents would be transitioned to permanent status (a one-time policy decision taken to help Canada reach its immigration targets for 2021.)

But the floodgates for migrant workers were also opened. Admissions of migrant workers soared this fall, subsequent to an agreement this summer between the federal government and the government of Quebec that increases the share of workers that can be migrants in a single workplace from 10 per cent to 20 per cent. The list of occupations that are newly favoured focus on the care economy, particularly those working in elder care, child care and health care. This list was expanded in November.

The federal government may have opened a Pandora’s box. While the deal with Quebec is described as a pilot program, other provinces are likely to ask to open the migrant worker taps as employers in every province, and perhaps even governments themselves, seek to contain costs in the highly labour-intensive care economy.

But consider this: the care economy, which includes health care, elder care, child care, social assistance and education, is a major economic powerhouse, driving more than 12.3 per cent of GDP (bigger than all other sectors except real estate) and more than 21 per cent of all jobs (unrivalled by any other sector).

The health-care workforce is shifting to a younger profile, but more than one in five (21.7 per cent) of our 250,000 registered nurses were age 55 or older in 2020 (and burning out fast); more than one in four (25.4 per cent) of our 91,000 physicians were age 60 or older. It takes 10 years to train a doctor, and four to five years to train a registered nurse. There are also hundreds of thousands of other types of workers in the care economy with varying degrees of qualification, many of whom get terrible wages and working conditions.

We could urge governments to use this unique confluence of events to increase training and good jobs for groups who systematically see fewer of these opportunities, such as Indigenous populations, racialized populations, recent immigrants and at-risk youth. We could insist every job is a good job in the mostly publicly funded care economy, creating a stronger foundation for the middle class of the early 21st century, like manufacturing did in the 1950s to 1970s.

Instead, public policy is rowing against market forces and demographic trends, to keep things cheap. The larger the share of migrant workers in a job market, the lower the wage growth. In our endless search for a cheap deal, let’s not pit ourselves as consumers against ourselves as workers. Caveat emptor. Buyer beware.

This nation of immigrants, the tenth-largest economy in the world, has two wishes, one of which will be granted: lower prices or better jobs.

Watch what you wish for.