Ready and able: Temporary foreign workers can help solve the labour gap in aging N.L.
New research from the Harris Centre’s Population Project examines the labour market situation in Labrador through the lens of the federal Temporary Foreign Worker program (TFWP).
The findings shared in the report, The Temporary Foreign Worker Program and Employers in Labrador, suggest that changes to the current program and related policy actions are needed to help mitigate impending labour shortages.
The research is a direct response to the Labrador and Northern Peninsula population projections released by the Population Project last year, which showed significant population decreases for many communities within the region.
The report is the first of a number of public policy research papers providing in-depth recommendations on how the region could adapt and prepare. The research was undertaken by members of Memorial’s Department of Economics and led by Dr. Tony Fang, the Stephen Jarislowsky Chair in Cultural and Economic Transformation.
“This work combines employer interviews with statistics around the hiring of temporary foreign workers, which is a different focus from previous studies that have focused on interviewing temporary foreign workers,” said Dr. Fang.
“Unlike past studies, we placed significant focus on the perspectives of the employers who hire these workers.”
In 2014 the federal government imposed additional restrictions on the TFWP, including a rule that prevents businesses from hiring workers if they are in a location with a regional rate of unemployment of 6 per cent or higher. Since then, many employers in Labrador have found it significantly more difficult to hire and retain adequate staff.
“Temporary foreign workers are important for employers in rural and remote areas such as Labrador, where labour supply is often unpredictable,” explained Dr. Fang.
“This is especially true for Labrador where the boom/bust economic cycle of the resource sector has pushed employers to seek a more flexible labour supply, and has increased employers’ reliance on the TFWP.”
Part of the problem is that the broad rules do not take regional labour market contexts into account. For example, Newfoundland and Labrador experiences a high rate of unemployment relative to the rest of the country, so under the updated rules of the TFWP local labour is assumed to be on hand.
However, the high regional rate of unemployment in Labrador doesn’t provide a comprehensive picture of the actual labour market situation because of the large amount of seasonal work in the region. There are also challenges related to the vast geography of Labrador and the aging demographics that the new program is unable to address.
The loss of this labour source has presented Labrador employers with real challenges. These challenges are expected to become more acute over the next several decades as the populations in many regions in Labrador age and decrease. Still, Dr. Fang believes there is plenty of opportunity to address the challenge with municipal, provincial and federal policy changes. These changes could both encourage more local participation in the labour market and make the TFWP better able to address regional needs.
“The research shows that there is a demonstrated need for temporary foreign workers in Labrador, so effective policy is essential. We’ve identified a number of critical areas to improve the effectiveness of the TFWP in Labrador,” said Dr. Fang.
“Significant improvements are possible through collaboration between major stakeholders, including all levels of governments, employers’ associations and various labour unions in the province.”
Recommendations proposed in the report include the creation of a local labour supply and demand database to better understand needs and opportunities, a modification of some of the regulations of the TFWP to reflect Labrador’s specific needs and supports for temporary foreign workers, including language training, housing improvements and greater supports and opportunities to pursue permanent residency.
Dr. Keith Storey, director, Population Project, notes that demographic changes in the province will present some significant policy challenges in the coming years.
“Labour supply issues will become increasingly important," he said. "What this report clearly illustrates is that there are ways in which we can prepare to better meet future labour needs.”
The report, The Temporary Foreign Worker Program and Employers in Labrador, and the Population Project’s population projections for the Northern Peninsula and Labrador can be viewed here.