HALIFAX — The use of temporary foreign workers tripled in Atlantic Canada between 2005 and 2012, says a new report that warns changes to the controversial program could make it more difficult for businesses to use it.
The report by the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council said the number of foreign workers in the region rose to 10,913 in 2012 from 3,499 on Dec. 1, 2005.
David Chaundy, a senior economist with the think-tank, said Wednesday he attributes the increase to continued outmigration and a declining labour pool in rural areas that have lost manufacturing jobs.
“I think employers are finding it increasingly difficult to find some of the workers with the skills they need in Canada,” he said. “That’s why they’ve turned to use this program to a greater extent than they have in the past.”
He added that 56 per cent of temporary foreign workers are employed in rural areas outside the six largest provincial centres, which contrasts to the 20 per cent of immigrants who live outside urban centres.
Still, Chaundy says temporary foreign workers account for a small percentage of the overall labour force in the area.
In 2012, temporary foreign workers represented one per cent of total employment in the Atlantic region, compared with 1.9 per cent nationally, he said.
The council said the largest increases were in lower-paying, lower-skill occupations, such as fish plant and food service workers. Chaundy said that’s likely due to changes made in 2002 that allowed the program to be used for lower skilled jobs.
The report said the number of temporary foreign workers employed in fish plants in Atlantic Canada grew from five in 2005 to 960 in 2012, with 90 per cent of them working in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.
Chaundy also said the federal temporary foreign worker program continues to be an important tool for the recruitment of managerial, professional or specialized technical workers needed for short-term work.
But that might become more difficult if the federal government alters the program significantly, he said, following allegations of abuse by companies that fired Canadian employees in favour of cheaper foreign workers.
Federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced a moratorium on hiring new temporary foreign workers in the food service industry last month and new rule changes are expected soon.
The temporary foreign worker program has ballooned under the Conservatives.
As many as 338,000 temporary workers are employed across the country, up from about 100,000 people in 2002. In 2013 alone, Ottawa approved about 240,000 temporary foreign workers.
The program allows Canadian employers to hire foreign nationals to fill temporary labour and skill shortages when qualified Canadian citizens or permanent residents are not available.