CEP News
Fri Sep 26, 2008

Toronto – Canada’s immigration policy is too focused on short-term labour market needs and therefore shortchanges both new Canadians and the country’s longer-term economic development, a leading researcher told a Toronto audience of academics, policy-makers and front line immigration workers Friday.

Although Canada’s immigration policy historically focused on “nation building” rather than short-term labour market needs, that is no longer the case, said Naomi Alboim, vice-chair of the Policy Forum at the Queen’s University School of Policy Studies. She spoke at an event organized by the Institute for Research and Public Policy and the non-profit immigrant assistance agency Maytree.

Alboim said the number of temporary foreign workers entering Canada has “skyrocketed” in recent years compared with skilled worker applicants who typically settle and work in Canada permanently.

“The bad news is it’s entirely employer driven,” Alboim said.

She noted that 40% of economic class immigrants – who are rated more favourably based on their education and work experience – end up leaving Canada within one year of immigrating.

Alboim said that’s because shifts in specific labour markets, such as the recent downturn in Canada’s manufacturing sector, can leave temporary workers virtually stranded without jobs once the sector for which they migrated to work begins to falter.

In addition, some Canadian companies are bringing in skilled immigrants as temporary workers, but actually hiring them for permanent positions at lower pay scales. This takes long-term jobs away from Canadian citizens and potentially drives wages down for both citizens and immigrant workers, she said.

Alboim said the greater emphasis on short-term labour market needs and the increased policy-making power of the provinces in immigration matters “happened with no real evaluation or debate … We need public debate and overall vision.”

She said the federal and provincial governments should work together to create a more cohesive immigration framework, and that immigration policy should look beyond the short term, make more efforts to integrate first and second generation immigrants into the economy, and ensure more balanced entrants among the economic, family and refugee categories of immigrants.

Alboim also recommended a better system to track immigrants, including where they end up within Canada’s labour force, to make sure the system caters properly to demand.

Alboim said by 2025, Canada will depend on immigration for 100% of its net labour force growth as the Canadian birth rate continues to fall.

She painted a bleak picture of those who are coming to Canada now.

“How are they doing? In a word, not very well.”

Economic class immigrants are more educated than Canadian-born citizens (91% of them have some post-secondary schooling), but are still underemployed and make less money than other Canadians, she said.

Alboim says it’s partly because more immigrants are coming from non-English speaking countries compared to past decades. Almost 71% of all immigrants now come from Asia Pacific, Africa and the Middle East. She called language and communication skills “the most important” criteria for success among immigrants.

She also said the experience and credentials of immigrants are still not accepted here on a widespread basis in many professions.

Some of Alboim’s findings clashed with those presented earlier at the event by Australian researcher Lesleyanne Hawthorne, a professor at the University of Melbourne.

Hawthorne said Australia’s decision in 1999 to allow more foreign students into the country, do more English language testing and tailor immigration levels to the needs of certain employment sectors has resulted in “Australians embracing a mass migration on a scale not seen since the 1940s.”

Alboim said boosting foreign student levels could actually worsen Canada’s brain drain, since most of the students return to their home countries instead of working in Canada after graduating.

By Christine Wong, cwong@economicnews.ca, edited by Sarah Sussman, ssussman@economicnews.ca

Reference: CEP News