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PRB 07-11E

Temporary Foreign Workers

Sandra Elgersma
Political and Social Affairs Division

7 September 2007

pdf PDF (96 kB, 13 pages)




The term “migrant worker” refers to a person engaged in a paid activity in a state of which he or she is not a national. In Canada, the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) contains a provision for migrant workers, who are allowed to work in Canada with an appropriate visa. These authorized workers are generally termed “temporary foreign workers.” The requirements for obtaining a visa are spelled out in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which is administered jointly by Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) and Human Resources and Social Development Canada (HRSDC). A second category of migrant worker is also indirectly referenced in IRPA, namely undocumented workers employed in Canada without authorization. The status and rights accorded these two categories of worker differ significantly. This paper will focus primarily on authorized temporary foreign workers.

Temporary Foreign Workers in Canada

Canada is becoming increasingly reliant on temporary foreign workers to meet labour market shortages. In 2006, 112,658 temporary foreign workers arrived in Canada. Although the number of temporary foreign workers has grown substantially in all provinces with significant numbers of foreign workers, this increase has been most pronounced in Alberta. In 2006, there were just over 22,000 temporary workers in Alberta, a 41% increase over the previous year. Permits issued to low-skilled workers account for the largest percentage of the increase in Alberta.

As of 2006, 41% of temporary foreign workers in Canada were men and 59% were women. Workers’ occupational skill levels are listed in Table 1.

Table 1 - Occupational Skill Level of Temporary Foreign Workers in Canada*
Skill level 0: managers 10.1
Skill level A: professionals 26.1
Skill level B: skilled and technical workers 14.9
Skill level C: intermediate and clerical workers 26.3
Skill level D: elemental workers and labourers 2.3
Not stated 20.4

* Data current 1 December 2006. Skill levels based on National Occupational Classification.

Source: CIC Facts and Figures 2006.

The United States is the primary source country for male temporary workers, while the majority of female temporary workers come from the Philippines. Mexico is the third leading source country overall. There has been a significant shift in source countries over the last 25 years. In 1982, two out of three temporary workers came from Europe and the United States; by 2005, one in three were from these areas.

Other qualitative aggregate data are more difficult to obtain. The available data are generally the product of qualitative research focused on well-established programs, such as the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) or the Live-In Caregiver program. For example, two 2002 surveys of SAWP participants found that the majority of migrant workers from the Caribbean and Mexico were landless or land-poor workers whose migratory work was central to their livelihoods. Another study, involving female migrant participants in the SAWP, found that the majority were single mothers.(1) Although these results are consistent with recruitment preferences for the SAWP, program parameters and conditions in the country of origin likely influence participant characteristics for other programs as well. Further research is necessary to gain a more complete picture of who comprises Canada’s temporary worker population.

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program

Workers come temporarily to Canada under a general program or as part of a sector-specific program. Visas differ with respect to requirements for employers and employees, duration, and eligibility for permanent residency. Programs targeted at highly skilled workers have fewer requirements for both employer and employee (e.g., with respect to housing arrangements). Further, since 2001, spouses of highly skilled work permit holders have been entitled to apply for their own work permit. Programs for low-skilled workers include measures intended to offer workers additional protection (e.g., through the employer’s obligation to ensure that housing is available).

The main sectors covered by foreign worker programs are described below. In addition, there are special programs for academics, people working in the film and entertainment industry, and information technology specialists. Employers need to meet additional requirements to hire foreign exotic dancers.

Over the last five years, more than two thirds of work permits issued to temporary foreign workers have been for no special program. Of the remaining permits, seasonal agricultural workers accounted for the greatest number issued, followed by live-in caregivers.

A. Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program

This program of bilateral agreements with Mexican and Caribbean governments to provide seasonal employment in agriculture began in 1966. Day-to-day program administration is carried out by private sector non-profit actors (FARMS and FERME),(2) while the governments of the source countries manage recruitment. The work visa is valid only for a specified job, employer, and period (8 months). Workers live in housing provided by the employer. Employers are required to cover certain costs, to ensure that the employee is covered by workers’ compensation and under health insurance, and to sign an employer/employee contract. In 2004, fewer than 3% of participants in this program were women.

B. Live-in Caregiver Program

Under this program, families can hire live-in caregivers to attend to children, elderly family members, or family members with disabilities. Work permits may be issued for up to three years plus three months. Caregivers are required to live in the employer’s home and must apply for a new work permit if they want to change employers. Under the IRPA, a foreign live-in caregiver may apply for a permanent resident visa after working for a total of 24 months within a 36-month period, a unique provision among temporary work programs. In 2005, 5% of workers with this visa were men.

C. Temporary Foreign Worker Program

This program allows employers to hire foreign workers who have obtained a work permit from CIC. Employers must obtain a positive labour market opinion from HRSDC, which requires, among other things, a demonstration that attempts were made to hire Canadians. Provisions were introduced in 2006 that allow employers in occupations under pressure to hire foreign workers more easily. HRSDC and Service Canada have developed regional lists of occupations in this category.

D. Project for Occupations Requiring Lower Levels of Formal Training, Previously the Low-Skilled Pilot Project

Introduced in 2002 and modified in 2007, this program allows employers to hire employees in occupations that usually require at most a high school diploma or a maximum of 2 years of job-specific training. Visas may be issued for a period up to 24 months. Employers are required to cover recruitment and return airfare costs, to ensure that suitable accommodation is available, to provide medical coverage until the employee is covered under a provincial plan, and to sign an employer/employee contract. The work permit is issued with reference to a specific employer. Employees generally work in sectors such as cleaning, hospitality, manufacturing, oil and gas and construction.

Benefits of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program

A. For Employers

Employers avail themselves of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to address labour shortages, which are reportedly acute in certain sectors such as construction. Otherwise, employers confronted with labour shortages may cope by hiring under-qualified staff or by passing up business opportunities. Alternatively, costs increases associated with recruiting qualified personnel can lead to the cancellation of projects and can hamper competitiveness. The combined effect is to “hold back economic growth,” according to Terry Jorden of Alberta Economic Development.(3) The employment of temporary foreign workers is intended to mitigate these effects.

B. For the Canadian Government

The Canadian government benefits not only from the sustained economic growth fostered by the Temporary Foreign Worker Program but also from the tax revenue generated by the program. Like other workers in Canada, temporary foreign workers are subject to the rules regarding payment of Canadian income tax. They also pay Canadian employment insurance premiums and contribute to the Canada Pension Plan. However, because they do not stay in Canada at the end of their employment period, they generally don’t receive basic employment insurance payments.

C. For Participating Workers

Temporary foreign workers benefit from the opportunity to live and work in Canada. Workers report that they are drawn to the quality of life in Canada, including health care benefits, the absence of armed conflict, and relatively low levels of pollution. However, remuneration is the most obvious benefit: many workers earn much more in Canada than would be possible in their countries of origin. These earnings are often a significant source of income for family members left behind: one bank with a remittance program tailored to Mexican SAWP participants reported 1,500 transfers, with a total amount of $2,000,000 in 2003.

Temporary workers are often hopeful about a potential future benefit of being able to stay in Canada. This hope persists despite the fact that most of Canada’s temporary worker programs do not include a provision that allows participants to apply for permanent residency.(4) Temporary workers whose visas are due to expire sometimes try to extend their stay by applying as immigrants, or as refugees under the humanitarian and compassionate grounds consideration in IRPA. Neither of these routes has a high rate of success. Some provinces consider temporary foreign workers for their provincial nominee program, a mechanism that allows a province to nominate prospective immigrants based on specific economic and labour needs, rather than the federal government’s point system for determining whether candidates are qualified for Canadian immigration. However, this route to permanent residency is limited by the number of nominees, which is well below the number of temporary workers in some provinces: for example, in 2006-2007, the Alberta government issued 948 nominations while there were more than 20,000 temporary workers in the province.

D. For Source Countries

Program proponents are optimistic about the potential for remittances and technology transfer to lead to economic development in the source countries. Documented benefits to individuals and families include the alleviation of poverty, opportunities for investment (i.e., for land purchase, a child’s education, or to start a business), and insurance against natural disasters or misfortune. However, research on the effects of remittances on source countries show mixed results: findings indicate that “development effects” of temporary workers need to be well planned and facilitated in order to yield results.(5)

Concerns Surrounding Temporary Migration

A. Labour-market Distortion

As the use of temporary migration programs increases in affluent developed countries, so do the criticisms of this approach to meeting labour market needs. Economists and unions have argued that the introduction of temporary foreign workers creates dependency and distorts market signals. For example, the use of these workers may discourage new Canadian entries into these sectors, limit wage increases, and act as a disincentive to seek productivity gains elsewhere (i.e., through the development of new technology). Even advocates of temporary migration programs view them as complementary to other initiatives, such as improving worker mobility or increasing investment in training.

B. Potential Abuse of Workers

Others criticize the potential for abuse that arises from workers’ temporary status. In particular, concerns have been raised over restricted labour mobility (the work permit is usually valid only for a specified job, employer, and time period), and a resultant dependence on one employer that makes it difficult for foreign workers to leave unsatisfactory working conditions. Barriers of language and/or knowledge can also prevent workers from availing themselves of protections that are in place.

C. Program-specific Concerns

In addition to these global concerns, the SAWP and the Live-In Caregiver Program have come under criticism by NGOs and UN bodies for particular program components, such as the requirement for caregivers to live in the employer’s home. The rapid expansion of the temporary workforce present in Canada under the visa for occupations requiring lower levels of formal training has also raised concerns. Advocates have questioned whether the controls within the program are adequate to prevent exploitation in recruitment (i.e., charging high fees) or to ensure good working conditions (i.e., safe, fair pay, etc.). The governments of Canada and Alberta signed a memorandum of understanding in July 2007 in an attempt to strengthen protections for temporary workers.

D. Social Exclusion of Participant Workers

A number of studies have also addressed the issue of social inclusion and exclusion facing migrant workers. Social exclusion refers to “the structures and dynamic processes of inequality among groups in society which, over time, structure access to critical resources that determine the quality of membership in society and ultimately produce and reproduce a complex of unequal outcomes.”(6) Social exclusion can result from legal sanction or institutional mechanisms, a failure to provide for the needs of a particular group, or exclusion from social and cultural activities and from normal forms of livelihood and participation in the economy. The experience of migrant workers includes social exclusion in each of these areas.

Migrant workers experience social exclusion by virtue of their status as non-citizens. Workers are required to return to their home countries after their visas have expired, even if they intend to reapply. A temporary visa itself may influence workers’ perceptions of their rights and entitlements.(7) Workers may not want to jeopardize their employment or temporary status in Canada by raising concerns over their conditions. As one study noted, the threat of repatriation alone is an effective measure of control. This power is even greater over undocumented workers, who lack the legal authority to be in the country.

Secondly, the needs of temporary foreign workers are inadequately addressed on a systemic level. Language is a significant barrier: temporary workers often speak neither of Canada’s official languages, and the availability of services in other languages is highly variable. This barrier not only impedes the interaction of foreign workers with the local population, but also has implications for their understanding of workplace expectations, their rights and obligations in Canada, and their health and safety. Although employers are responsible for ensuring that temporary foreign workers receive this type of information, there is little follow-through to ensure compliance, and NGOs have in some places stepped in to fill the gap. Although employers and NGOs have had time to develop language-specific resources to meet the demands of long-standing temporary worker populations (i.e., Mexican farm workers), the diversity and volume of new temporary foreign workers present significant challenges in this area.

A number of factors contribute to the difficulties faced by temporary foreign workers in participating in social production and forming relationships with local Canadians. Low-skilled workers generally come to Canada without their families, creating a temporary social environment. Long hours, linguistic barriers, and limited mobility are also contributing factors. Isolation is a concern for those working on farms at a distance from others, in remote work camps, or live-in caregivers in their employer’s homes. Some migrant workers report experiences of racism and harassment, while studies have found some local communities to be indifferent to or ignorant about workers’ presence.

Migrant workers participation in the labour market allows them to provide for themselves and for dependents elsewhere. At the same time, conditions of employment have a different impact on temporary workers than on other Canadians. For example, they derive no benefit from basic employment insurance and often work in non-unionized sectors. Limited labour mobility (i.e., a stipulation to work for the employer named on the visa) is also part of the program design.


Temporary foreign worker programs are one means by which policy-makers can address labour market shortages. Canada increasingly benefits from the temporary work of people from a variety of countries who are engaged in a range of sectors. This trend is likely to continue, as provincial and federal governments respond to “hot” economies. However, issues surrounding employer dependency, worker protection and social exclusion will warrant further attention in the years ahead.

Selected Bibliography

Cryderman, Kelly. “Foreign Worker Woes; A Federal Program is Providing Desperately Needed Labour for Alberta Employers – but at a severe price for many workers.” Calgary Herald, 1 July 2007, p. B1.
alabuzi, Grace-Edward. “Social Exclusion.” In Social Determinants of Health: Canadian Perspectives, ed. Dennis Raphael. Canadian Scholars’ Press, Toronto, 2004.
International Policy Coordination. Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Remittances: A Preliminary Research. CIC, Ottawa, 2004.
Oxman-Martinez, Jacqueline, Jill Hanley, and Leslie Cheung. Another Look at the Live-in Caregivers Program. Centre de recherche interuniversitaire de Montréal sur l’immigration, l’intégration et la dynamique urbaine, Montréal, 2004.
Preibisch, Kerry L. “Migrant Agricultural Workers and Processes of Social Inclusion in Rural Canada: Encuentros and Desencuentros.” Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Vol. 29, No. 57/8, 2004.
Ruhs, Martin. The Potential of Temporary Migration Programmes in Future International Migration Policy (PDF; 29 pages). Paper prepared for the Global Commission on International Migration.
Trumper, Ricardo, and Lloyd L. Wong. “Canada’s Guest Workers: Racialized, Gendered, and Flexible.” In Race and Racism in 21st Century Canada: Continuity, Complexity, and Change, ed. Sean P. Hier and B. Singh Bolaria. Broadview Press, Peterborough, 2007.


  1. Antonieta Barrón, “Mexican Women on the Move: Migrant Workers in Mexico and Canada,” in Women Working the NAFTA Food Chain: Women, Food and Globalization, ed. Deborah Barndt, Sumach Press, Toronto, 1999, p. 120.
  2. Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Service and Fondation des entreprises pour le recrutement de la main-d’œuvre étrangère.
  3. Sarah O’Donnell, “Alberta pressed to let in more foreign workers: Overheated economy makes province’s businesses desperate for staff; frustrated owners say more red tape must be cut,” Edmonton Journal, 19 November 2006, A6.
  4. The Live-In Caregiver program is the exception; it allows participants to apply for permanent residency after working a total of 24 months within a 36-month period in Canada.
  5. Martin Ruhs, The Potential of Temporary Migration Programmes in Future International Migration Policy (PDF, 29 pages), Paper prepared for the Global Commission on International Migration, Geneva, September 2005, p. 17.
  6. Grace-Edward Galabuzi, “Social Exclusion,” in Social Determinants of Health: Canadian Perspectives, ed. Dennis Raphael, Canadian Scholars’ Press, Toronto, 2004.
  7. Jacqueline Oxman-Martinez, Jill Hanley, and Leslie Cheung, Another Look at the Live-In Caregivers Program, Centre de recherché interuniversitaire de Montréal sur l’immigration, l’intégration et la dynamique urbaine, Montréal, 2004, p. 14.

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