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Universities caught up in overhaul of foreign workers program

Universities say recent changes to the temporary foreign worker program make it hard for them to hire the right academics for the post.

BY ROSANNA TAMBURRI | NOV 10 2014

Changes to Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program aimed at curbing abuses by some employers are having the added effect of impeding universities from hiring top foreign academics and senior administrators.

The federal government revised the program this summer following news reports that temporary foreign workers were displacing Canadian employees at some workplaces. Many of the abuses were reported in low-wage jobs such as fast-food restaurants. The changes were designed to restrict the use of the program and put an end to these practices.

But the new regulations and the way they’re being applied by Canadian government officials are affecting high-skills occupations, too. The changes are causing long delays in universities’ ability to hire foreign faculty members and senior administrators; and in some cases these applications are being rejected.

“It’s making it harder for us to do what we believe the government expects us to do, which is hire the best regardless of where they come from,” said Alan Harrison, provost and vice-principal, academic, at Queen’s University. He said the new regulations will “be felt significantly” by universities, especially the research-intensive institutions. Some positions for which there is a shortage of qualified Canadian specialists, such as psychiatry, will go unfilled, he predicted.

“It’s been difficult for us, to say the least,” added Frances Hannigan, immigration specialist at the University of Waterloo. The university has had two applications to hire foreign faculty members rejected since the rules came into force, even though it believed it had met the new requirements.

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program was created in 1973 to allow Canadian employers to hire highly skilled foreign nationals such as academics and business executives on a short-term basis to fill temporary labour and skills shortages when qualified Canadians weren’t available. It was expanded over the years to cover low-skills occupations and to make it easier and faster for employers to bring in foreign workers.

In June, the government strengthened the labour market test that employers must meet before they are eligible to hire a foreign worker. The more rigorous test, now called the Labour Market Impact Assessment, requires employers to show that they tried but were unable to find a Canadian to fill the position. Among other things, employers must disclose the number of Canadians that applied and were interviewed for the job and must explain why the Canadians weren’t hired. The new rules also raised the processing fee from $275 to $1,000 for every temporary foreign worker position requested.

Another revision to the process requires employers who apply to hire high-wage temporary foreign workers to submit transition plans with their Labour Market Impact Assessment applications. The plans must demonstrate how the employer will boost efforts to hire more Canadians, either by offering higher wages, making additional investments in training or stepping up recruitment efforts at home, particularly among underrepresented groups such as Aboriginals and new immigrants. Alternatively, an employer can choose to facilitate a temporary foreign worker’s move to permanent residency status by making a permanent job offer.

Ms. Hannigan said the University of Waterloo has an internal appointments review committee charged with ensuring that qualified Canadians are given top consideration for all available faculty positions. It also pledged to offer the foreign candidates permanent tenure-track positions and to facilitate their transition to permanent residency status once they arrived in the country. But its applications were still denied. The university has asked for a review of the decisions by Employment and Social Development Canada, which manages the temporary foreign worker program.

Employers initially were given the option of requesting an exemption from submitting a transition plan if the position they were seeking to fill required “unique skills.” But some universities that had requested the exemption were denied it, and Employment and Social Development Canada subsequently eliminated the exemption option.

What’s more, under the new regulations each university may commit to supporting a prospective foreign candidate towards permanent residency just once per “national occupation classification” code, a reference system used by the federal government to classify jobs. But all faculty members are hired through the same national occupation classification code, said Dr. Harrison, the Queen’s provost. This means that a university’s subsequent foreign hiring would have to be made through other immigration streams.

Universities have generally preferred to hire overseas and U.S. professors for permanent tenure-stream positions through the temporary foreign worker program because it is a much faster process. Hiring through the permanent residency streams can take years, Dr. Harrison noted.

Universities feel caught, said Gail Bowkett, director of research and international relations at the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. On the one hand “there is a clear recognition by government that for Canada to remain a prosperous and competitive country we need to attract top talent,” she said. “And there is very much a global competition for that talent.” On the other hand, the new regulations make it tougher for universities to compete. AUCC is working with its member institutions and government officials to try to resolve the matter.

The new regulations also require employers to report on the success of their transition plans when they apply to hire a temporary foreign worker under a subsequent Labour Market Impact Assessment for the same occupation at the same work location, or if the employer is selected for a government inspection. Those who misuse the temporary foreign workers program could face fines of up to $100,000.

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  1. SC / November 10, 2014 at 09:00

    Very few faculty members (at least in the sciences or engineering) hired are actually ‘foreign’; the vast majority are citizens or permanent residents of Canada.
    The real reason universities are worried is that changes will prevent the recruitment of foreign postdoc on work visas to enable their perpetual exploitation. Having one’s visa status dependent on one’s employer is recipe for abuse (unlike the international graduate students who are in relatively structured programs and have recourse in the form of GSAs and graduate co-ordinator while postdocs are often left to their own devices). Anything that restricts the flow of cheap postdoc labour should be considered a blessing and not a problem IMHO.

  2. JD / November 10, 2014 at 09:30

    This is good news. In the humanities, such as English, History, and Philosophy, tenure-track jobs go to foreign PhDs at a rate from 60-80%. There are several previous University Affairs articles about this problem. Can anyone imagine 60-80% of tenure-track jobs going to foreign PhDs in the United States? Only in Canada are we so colonized to believe that foreign-trained de facto means better. Given the current state of the academic job market, where there might only be 1 job in the entire country in a particular subfield in any given year, if even that, it is disgraceful that research universities invariably choose to hire foreign-trained PhDs rather than PhDs trained here in Canada. The ability to hire foreign scholars is exacerbating an already dire problem and undermines the value of graduate studies in Canada. When research institutions choose to hire foreign-trained PhDs, they are saying that their own PhD training and their own students are inadequate. This has been happening at increasing rates since 1999 when Human Resources and Development Canada (now ESDC) got rid of the two-tier hiring system that prevented universities from hiring foreigners, or even looking at their files, before actually offering proof that there were no qualified Canadian candidates. Now the blurbs on job ads that say Canadians have priority are nothing more than lip service and Canadian applicants are at a significant disadvantage when applying for jobs in Canada. The fact that we’ve been hiring mostly US and UK PhDs for the past 15 years means that many departments now have more foreign faculty than Canadian faculty members, creating a vicious circle that devalues Canadian-trained PhDs even more. We need to go back to the two-tier hiring system and these rules are a small step in the right direction.

  3. JD confused? / November 10, 2014 at 09:35

    What about Canada-trained foreign-born PhDs or foreign-trained Canada-born PhDs?

  4. JD / November 11, 2014 at 09:00

    I’m not confused. Canadian-born, foreign-trained PhDs make up a very small percentage of the foreign PhDs who are hired. There’s a pretty close correlation between PhD origin and citizenship when we’re talking about foreign-trained PhDs hired in Canada. As for foreign-born, Canadian-trained PhDs, they’re in the same boat as all the Canadian-born, Canadian-trained PhDs because they are subject to the same discrimination against Canadian PhDs. They don’t stand any greater chance of being hired because of the same colonial mentality that any PhD trained in Canada is de facto inferior to any PhD trained in the US or UK.

    This has all been documented right here in Universitiy Affairs:
    – PhD: to what end? Philosophy grads from Canadian universities are at a disadvantage in landing tenure-track jobs: http://www.universityaffairs.ca/phd-to-what-end.aspx
    – The end of the Canadianization movement A globalization by-product?: http://www.universityaffairs.ca/end-of-the-canadianization-movement.aspx
    – Yes, Canadian universities do discriminate against their own graduates: http://www.universityaffairs.ca/yes-canadian-universities-do-discriminate-against-their-own-graduates.aspx

  5. JD misplaced? / November 11, 2014 at 09:40

    All due respect for your frustration, the article is regarding “foreign” workers defined by the government; kudos for three links where you should have more to say.
    I personally like academics with global background (e.g. France, Asia) simply Canada is too small, just a few internationally competitive universities. If a PhD from UBC in Canadian Studies were less favoured than one from Seattle, that would suck 🙂 Otherwise, it’s brain drain since McLuhan – better colleagues of mine roll abroad. But, let’s stick with this article’s message.