Canada’s immigration system failing construction industry: BC builders

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By Robin MacLennan

CaDCR staff writer

A new report from the BC Building Trades (BCBT) is casting doubt on Canada’s immigration practices as a solution to the ongoing construction labour shortage.

While the country faces a growing construction labour shortage, the report points to major holes in the immigration system and a Temporary Foreign Worker Program that is being abused driv- driving down wages while leaving Canadian workers on the sidelines and foreign workers vulnerable.

British Columbia (B.C.) faces an urgent demand for workers, with projections indicating a need for 52,600 new construction workers by 2032 to prevent a severe labour shortage. Alarmingly, 30% of these workers will need to come from outside of Canada. However, a recent report from the BC Building Trades (BCBT) reveals that Canada’s immigration system not only falls short of addressing these shortages but exacerbates the issue for both workers and the industry.

The Federal Skilled Trades Program (FSTP), specifically designed to mitigate the construction labour shortage by providing express entry to construction workers, has proven ineffective. Between 2019 and 2023, only 240 permanent resident construction workers were admitted to B.C. through the FSTP, averaging a mere 48 per year—just 0.2% of economic immigrant migrations.

The broader economic immigration class has similarly underperformed in addressing the construction labour shortage. Over the past five years, only 7,000 tradespeople have obtained permanent residency in B.C. through economic class immigration streams. This rate is significantly below B.C.’s labour requirements, failing to deliver the necessary permanent skilled trades workforce needed for crucial housing and infrastructure projects.

This inadequacy has led to a heavy reliance on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). “We are facing a significant labour crunch, and while Canadian construction workers should have first access to available jobs, we recognize the need for new entrants to help meet the growing need for skilled workers,” said Brynn Bourke, executive director of BC Building Trades. “Instead of ignoring the problem in construction, we’re calling on the Government of Canada to put a special focus on immigration in B.C.”

From 2019 to 2023, 7,160 temporary foreign workers were brought into B.C.’s construction industry, making up 4.7% of the workforce, compared to 2.1% across Canada.

“Too many contractors have become hooked on cheap temporary labour to boost their profits. As they abuse the TFW system, Canadian workers are paid less and shut out of jobs that should be theirs,” said Doug Parton, business manager of Ironworkers Local 97. “That’s not right. The TFW program is hurting Canadians and migrant workers too. The entire system needs an overhaul.”

Canada’s dependence on TFWs has surged by more than 500% since 2010. Despite this, construction was specifically exempted from newly announced reforms aimed at reducing temporary workers in March 2024. Mark Olsen, president of LiUNA 1611, echoed concerns about the TFW program, highlighting its role in lowering Canadian wages and calling for significant changes.

To address the labour shortage and the deficiencies in Canadian immigration and the TFWP, the BC Building Trades is advocating for several measures:

  • An independent audit to investigate mismanagement of the International Mobility Program (IMP) and the TFWP, with a prohibition on construction trades through these programs until the audit is complete.
  • A substantial increase in the use of the Federal Skilled Trades Program.
  • Exclusion of employers from the TFWP who do not have a proven history of participating in the apprenticeship system.
  • An update to the temporary worker program, including a revision of the definition and methodology for determining the prevailing wage.

Established in 1967, the BC Building Trades represents 18 craft construction unions and more than 40,000 unionized construction workers

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