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FOCAL Views: Temporary migration in support of development

More could be done to boost development outcomes in sending countries and ensure fairness for all workers.

Peak agricultural season in Canada is just around the corner, signalling the arrival of tens of thousands of temporary foreign workers to fill positions that are necessary for the Canadian economy but that most Canadians are unwilling to take. Picking peaches in the hot Ontario sun or pruning endless rows of fruit trees is not how many Canadians would consider spending a summer workday.

The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) is one of the main components of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). Originally envisioned as a way to help Canadian farmers as well as to help countries of the Commonwealth Caribbean with labour surpluses, SAWP has expanded to include Mexico, with more countries seeking to join. The TFWP has also expanded beyond agriculture to include construction, tourism and other industries under the Low Skill Pilot Project, for example.

The TFWP has become a model for a transparent, open and flexible regime that benefits both host and sending country. The strength of the system, its formality and regulation with strong participation from Canadian and sending governments, stands in sharp contrast to the informal and unregulated system in place in the United States. Problems with the Canadian model —there have been isolated reports of unsuitable living conditions or inadequate compensation for job injuries for example— are more easily identified and addressed than in the United States and protections for migrants, while not perfect, are much stronger in Canada. In addition, benefits such as access to the Canadian health-care system and to the formal banking sector are important distinctions of the Canadian program.

One issue overlooked in current discussions about temporary labour is that of improving the development outcomes of participation in such programs. As originally conceived it was hoped the program would also benefit sending countries by injecting money into poor or less-developed communities. From time to time attempts have been made to realize this potential. Scotiabank developed a program to provide ATM cards and binational accounts for migrants from Mexico to allow easier remittance of funds back home. More can be done in this area such as matching savings programs for investments in small businesses, farms or mortgages by migrants in their home communities or programs to help migrants apply job skills learned in Canada to the creation of jobs back home.

The temporary nature of the program also causes problems. Some provinces and industries view the program as a route to solving the long-term demographic decline and labour shortages they are facing. This has created some friction with sending countries that do not want to permantly lose sections of their labour force. It also creates misperceptions and uneven expectations about the program among migrants. In Canada, live-in caregivers have a direct path to applying for permanent residency, while other temporary workers do not even though both positions are classified as low-skill. This undermines the purpose of the points-system immigration regime in Canada and sets a dangerous precedent. It also raises a question of basic fairness in Canadian immigration policy.

But on balance and especially when compared to programs in other countries, the Canadian temporary migrant programs are something of which Canadians should be proud, but not complacent. It is now hoped more will be done to leverage development impacts.

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