Don’t forget the business side of immigration

Don’t forget the business side of immigration
My column has had really one or two overarching themes: change is constant and transparency is critical.

Big changes just keep on happening, namely, the federal government has changed from a party with a somewhat divisive stance on immigration to one that is purporting to be more open and tolerant. We’ve become so used to the divisiveness that it was with great surprise that the Liberal party seems to have read my mind on how to go forward.

In the prime minister’s letter to the new Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship John McCallum, Justin Trudeau writes: “We have also committed to set a higher bar for openness and transparency in government. It is time to shine more light on government to ensure it remains focused on the people it serves.

Openness. Transparency. A government focused on the people it serves. A government so committed to the immigration portfolio and responsive to global crises that the prime minister codifies, in the very name of the office, the three main areas that this office should focus on: immigration (including foreign workers), citizenship, and refugees.

In reading the entirety of the PM’s letter, which I encourage you to do, there is an immediate sense that there is a new team in town and that team wants to play fair.

Many of the immediate priorities the government has set are based on the feel-good part of immigration. These priorities are largely family and refugee focused, not specifically about business immigration. However, I don’t say this to minimize their importance. On the contrary. Reuniting parents and siblings and supporting the global refugee crisis are key components of a compassionate immigration program with a focus on family, security, and establishing ourselves as global partners.

In fact, the PM has asked McCallum to: “Establish an expert human rights panel to help you determine designated countries of origin, and provide a right to appeal refugee decisions for citizens from these countries.” This is an amazing step that will base the identification of refugees not on popular opinion but on the expert testimony and knowledge of human rights activists. This is a welcome change for anyone interested in the plight of those less fortunate around the globe.

But this focus on refugees and the more compassionate side of immigration has left me, as a member of the business immigration bar, scratching my head a bit. As I’ve written ad nauseum, the Temporary Foreign Worker Program is in a period of unprecedented change. The previous government bowed to public pressure and essentially gutted the TFWP, practically  villainizing companies that bring in foreign workers for legitimate business reasons.

The perfect example of this is the new administrative monetary penalty regime that will go into effect Dec. 1. It creates stiff penalties for employers who utilize the TFWP and are found to be non-compliant with some component of the system.

These penalties apply to transgressions ranging from administrative errors all the way to actual worker exploitation, and will be levied in response to violations discovered during government inspections of employers that bring in foreign workers. The penalties can result in bars to employers utilizing the TFWP, as well as having a significant financial cost.

The AMP seemed to be the Conservative party’s direct response to negative press and a perceived increase in anti-foreign worker sentiment. Tackle the errant employers, put all of the onus on them, and the government would then seemingly come out clean.

But even the apparently popular sentiment against foreign workers could not quash the humanitarian feelings that arose in the national audience in direct reflection of the current Syrian refugee crisis. It would seem that in some respects the Liberals rode to victory in part on their seemingly generous attitude toward refugees.

It’s one of the most difficult dynamics of an immigration system. That which helps the refugee in a war-torn country also benefits the parents who wish to join their children, as well as the company that wants to hire the foreign worker. It’s all part of the same system.

Many of us are waiting for McCallum to explain how this new Liberal government will utilize the AMP program and the stance it will take with respect to penalizing employers. Access to the TFWP has been extremely limited, and we are hoping the new government will promote the importance of a global economy and support the legitimate mobility of temporary foreign workers around the globe.

While the Liberal party campaigned on a promise of transparency and inclusiveness, it was able to keep much of its immigration platform focused on the refugee crisis. It is my hope the platform will be expanded to reflect the reality of global business in a fast-changing economy. Canada must regain its flexibility in this if it is to remain a true player in the global market.

And this is just a small taste of the many challenges that need to be swiftly addressed by the new government.

How this Ministry of Immigration will work with the Ministry of Families, Children and Social Development remains to be seen (and even the new title sounds completely unbusiness). The Liberal party has promised to undo some of the Conservative party’s overall damage, such as moving the age of dependent children back to 22 years old from 19, as well as removing some of the more egregious parts of the recent Citizenship Act.

These changes are welcome, but still do not address the new government’s level of tolerance for or commitment to Canadian businesses. It is my hope that we see firm commitment on this platform in short order.

My wish list? From a business perspective, it’s pretty simple:
•    Maintain what is working from the system that the Conservatives imposed, such as the Express Entry Application system, but revamp it to make it more accessible to more of our temporary foreign workers;
•    Continue to make employers responsible for their use of the TFWP through things such as compliance attestations in work permit applications, but also to establish clear instructions as to the government’s compliance expectations, tolerances, and exceptions;
•    The system should be nimble enough to offer strict processing in industries over-represented in Canada, but have in place fair and expeditious processing in other sectors.

Essentially, let the market flow through Canada in order to promote Canada as a world-class destination for business.

We can do this while keeping secure borders and tight controls on Canadian unemployment, if we work together using clear, transparent guidelines that promote our vision and strengths, not our fears and weaknesses.

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