Regularizing undocumented workers would benefit us all

This column by Armine Yalnizyan was originally published by the Toronto Star on Wednesday April 12, 2023. Armine is a Contributing Columnist to Toronto Star Business featured bi-weekly.

Want higher pay? A bigger economy with more household purchasing power? More revenues for public programs? Less exploitation of people at work and in society?

It’s all possible. Everyone can win, but the argument is counterintuitive, and may challenge your notions about fairness, process, and who gets to be Canadian. Stay with me on this.

The problem

Canada has long issued permits for people to temporarily come work and study in Canada, but the recent growth in this practice is staggering. By the end of 2022, in the name of fast-tracking solutions to labour shortages for business, the number of temporary foreign workers increased by 50 per cent compared to 2021, to almost 800,000 people.

In less than a generation, there has been an 8.5-fold increase in the numbers we permit to temporarily come work and study here, to 1.6 million in 2022 from 189,000 such residents in 2000. There was no public debate if this was good policy.

Colleges and universities now rely on the high fees they can charge international students, and we now take for granted the endless army of permanently temporary workers who chop and clean in restaurant kitchens, erect and renovate buildings, clean at night and care for your loved ones during the day.

We don’t know what share of temporary residents come here hoping to stay, but the complex maze of rules and conditions — requiring multiple applications and precise timing — guarantees some people will find no pathways to permanence, and others will run out of time trying.

Some leave, some are deported, and some live among us without official status. That opens the door to all sorts of bad economic outcomes. In 2007, the RCMP said between 200,000 and 500,000 were undocumented. It’s surely higher today, given how we’re expanding the inflows. That’s bad for them, and it’s bad for us.