OTTAWA REVISES DOWNWARD TWO DECADES OF DATA ON TEMPORARY FOREIGN WORKERS
The federal government has revised more than two decades of immigration data, saying that “technical difficulties” led to bloated figures for a subset of temporary foreign workers.
Slightly more than one million people held work permits through the International Mobility Program (IMP) at the end of last year, an increase of 48 per cent from 2021, according to figures that were published by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) in February.
But recently, IRCC updated those numbers – and they are significantly different. Now, the federal government says that roughly 675,000 people held IMP work permits at the end of 2022, a decline of around 340,000 from the earlier dataset. The figures for all previous years, dating back to 2000, were also reduced.
The revisions are raising concerns about IRCC’s management of immigration data, while some economists say the changes are adding to confusion over how many temporary foreign workers are in Canada, which is already a difficult thing to estimate.
“There’s a major opaqueness problem” with how Ottawa is counting temporary residents, said Mikal Skuterud, a University of Waterloo professor who studies the economics of immigration.
Globe and Mail journalists recently discovered the revisions. The federal immigration department did not publish the new figures with an explanation for why they had changed so much.
IRCC spokesperson Matthew Krupovich said in a statement that the department experienced “technical difficulties” when producing the figures. The current numbers, he said, are “accurate.”
The Globe asked IRCC for a deeper explanation of these issues but did not receive a response.
However, several immigration researchers told The Globe that IRCC removed some permit holders who had been recently added to the dataset. These included work permit holders who are students or refugee claimants. Those individuals were usually reported separately, but when added to the IMP dataset in recent years, this retroactively changed the numbers – and consequently made them much larger.
The trouble is that IRCC has not published a new dataset of the 340,000 work permit holders who were removed. Effectively, there is a cohort of temporary foreign workers that is not accounted for in publicly available statistics.
The revision is “extremely frustrating,” Prof. Skuterud said. “At a minimum, when you’re working with government data, you want to trust that they’re accurate.”
Canada’s immigration data are drawing greater interest and scrutiny as the country grows at historically strong rates, but also faces some persistent issues such as access to health care and housing.
Canada grew by more than one million people in 2022, and just last week, the population surpassed 40 million. The federal government is intentionally courting more immigrants and aims to admit 500,000 permanent residents annually by 2025. Ottawa says this is a necessary move to fill labour shortages and slow the aging of society.
Increasingly, Canada is moving toward a two-step immigration process in which people come here first as temporary students or workers, and then later apply for permanent residency.
The recent population surge is primarily driven by these temporary residents, and in particular, the International Mobility Program accounts for a significant portion of temporary foreign workers. Within IMP, there are several categories of permit holders, including postgraduate workers and spouses of skilled workers.
The use of temporary foreign labour has grown dramatically over the past two decades. Based on the updated numbers, the volume of IMP permits has soared by 1,434 per cent since 2000.
But Canada’s growing reliance on such workers has drawn criticism on several grounds, including that it shields employers from making more competitive wage offers to domestic workers or investing in new technologies.
Ottawa has eased its immigration policies in recent years. In 2022, for instance, it overhauled the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) to make it easier to hire low-wage labour. (A smaller number of workers come to Canada through TFWP, many of them seasonal employees in the agriculture industry.) The federal government has also temporarily removed a limit on work hours for international postsecondary students.
Prof. Skuterud said that while foreign labour is becoming a bigger feature of the economy, there are major limitations in pinpointing the extent of its involvement.
“If we want to know something like what percentage of the Canadian labour force or employment is comprised of temporary residents, there is no way to know that answer” definitively, he said.
For example, many international students do not need a work permit to legally work in Canada. A Statistics Canada report, based on tax-filing data in 2019, found that international students are a rapidly growing part of the labour force. However, there are no recent snapshots of their participation in the job market.
Researchers have also noted that temporary residents can be difficult to reach for key surveys such as the census, which further adds to the confusion.
“There is a significant undercounting of non-permanent residents in the official statistics,” said Benjamin Tal, deputy chief economist at CIBC Capital Markets. “We are underestimating also the supply of labour, especially low-wage labour coming from foreign students.”
Story by: The Globe and Mail