The immigration system continues to fall short of meeting the needs of small businesses, including farms, facing labour shortages, says a new report by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
A major mismatch exists between the jobs small businesses need filled and the skill levels of immigrants the government prioritizes, says the report.
Also, the overly complicated process to bring in and retain foreign workers is an issue.
Why it matters: Farmers struggle to find workers, which has hindered production and dampened growth in the sector.
“Our immigration system does not make it easy for smaller employers and immigrants to connect and work together,” said Corinne Pohlmann, CFIB’s senior vice-president of national affairs. “Employers who use the immigration system to fill a vacancy face a complex web of red tape and high costs, especially if they are hiring a temporary foreign worker.”
Agriculture has the highest proportion of new immigrants in the workforce. The report says 23 per cent of farmers have new immigrants making up more than half their workforce.
Small businesses are struggling to find workers. Forty-six per cent are looking for workers with a college diploma or apprenticeship and 31 per cent are looking for occupants with a high school diploma or job-specific training.
However, only 17 per cent of economic immigrants admitted to Canada in 2017 had a college diploma or apprenticeship, and two per cent had a high school diploma or job-specific training.
In contrast, three-fifths of immigrants had a university degree, but less than one in 10 occupations experiencing shortages requires one.
Within the high school diploma or job-specific training category, agriculture makes up seven per cent of potential employers, the fourth highest by major group.
As well, businesses hoping to use the immigration system to fill jobs often find the process lengthy and complex.
Of hundreds of comments received from the survey, three quarters of the small businesses described their experience with the government to be negative, says the report.
“I have used the Seasonal Workers Agricultural Program (SAWP) for six years. The paperwork is too complicated. Without the program my farm would be out of business. Using temporary foreign workers costs more money than locals,” said an Ontario farmer responding to the survey.
The most problematic areas are the cost, amount of paperwork and the lengthy timelines.
Many small businesses turn to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) as a last resort when trying to fill job vacancies.
While most Canadian business owners agreed that TFWP should not be used to replace Canadians that are willing to work, 75 per cent of businesses in agriculture said their business would not be able to operate without foreign workers.
“Apple orchards require temporary foreign workers (TFW) for the harvest season. Legally, our company puts a job ad out. However, we do not receive applicants as Canadians do not want to work these necessary jobs,” said an Ontario apple farmer in the survey.
To hire a TFW, businesses must prove to the government that there is no Canadian available to fill the position. The application involves several steps, including completing a labour market impact assessment involving more than 15 pages.
Once the application is submitted, a $1,000 fee is charged which is non-refundable should their application be denied.
The survey also showed a delay in the application process, with 82 per cent of those who responded saying it took more than three months, and 39 per cent saying it took up to 12 months to process.
Significant delays in hiring TFW can cause major stress and financial hardship for many small businesses. It can leave them uncertain about whether they have to delay business plans or increase hours of work.
This is particularly damaging for agriculture, where 69 per cent of small business owners said they agree the federal government should make it easier for small businesses to access the TFWP.
CFIB suggests immigration changes
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business urged the government to change the immigration system and offered several possible new measures:
- Create an “introduction to Canada visa” as a pathway to permanent residency for foreign workers in sectors or regions with high demand.
- Ensure that the skills of new immigrants entering Canada on a temporary or permanent basis more closely align with the skill levels needed.
- Conduct a review of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program process to reduce the complexity of applications, improve government customer service, and significantly reduce delays in processing applications.