Immigration crackdown would hurt many businesses
New arrivals often take jobs that native Canadians shy away from

One of the open secrets among small business owners is how hard it is to find entry-level workers. In countries with strong safety nets such as Canada, low paying positions are difficult to fill even in bad times. But when the economy heats up, staffing can be a nightmare, particularly in the maintenance, retail, and light manufacturing sectors

"I have a hard time recruiting," said Mario, a West Island service sector business-owner. "People don't want to work for entry-level wages, and even those who do, after a short time they quit."

To meet the gap, business owners like Mario, typically rely on immigrants or recently naturalized Canadians. (Like all business owners we interviewed about immigration, Mario refused to be quoted for attribution for this article).

Mario has between three or four people born outside the country on staff. "They are very good," Mario said. "They work well, are on time and don't complain as much."

But a big threat to business owners like Mario, is that increasing skepticism regarding Canada's immigration policies emanating from the September 11th fallout, could lead to tighter immigration policies.

Skepticism about immigration is everywhere. It shows up in U.S. demands that Canada better screen our immigrants to ensure continental security. It's effects are also apparent among visible minorities and the businesses that employ them, in that many are reluctant to speak publicly about the subject.

And even the Fraser Institute, a pro-business think tank and traditionally an immigration supporter, recently released an unofficial paper that significantly nuances traditional pro-immigration arguments such as the benefits provided by new arrivals, and their role in compensating for low Canadian birth rates.

Business owners have been one of main beneficiaries of the fact that Canada has one of the most liberal immigration policies in the world. However ironically, Canada's immigration policies are not designed to provide cheap labour for businesses. In fact, it's quite the opposite.

The vast majority of immigrants admitted are selected based on the skills or money they bring to the Canadian economy. A good chunk of them come from the third world, and the program thus acts as reverse foreign aid.

We recruit the best, healthiest, richest and most enterprising people from the poorer countries by promising them a better life, and we leave the rest stuck at home.

During 2000 for example, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada statistics, 133,370 of the 227,200 immigrants admitted into the country fell into the "economic," category. Of the balance, 60,515, were brought in under the family unification program, and 26,747 were refugees.

Although there are no conclusive recent studies as to what degree immigrants as a group contribute to the economy or not, the anecdotal evidence from talking to small business owners who hire entry level workers is overwhelming. The one we talked to all spoke positively of their workers. What makes their testimony convincing, is the fact that those workers inevitably come from the "non-economic" categories.

According to Ricardo, part-owner of a maintenance company whose staff is more than half of Latin American origin, Canadians are more inclined to take things for granted.

"We are mega-blessed in this country. It's truly the land of opportunity," Ricardo said. "But Canadians don't realize it as much. They tend to ask more questions, and they don't want to work evenings. The immigrants are more likely to just pick up their equipment and go to work."

Ricardo pays his employees $13.00 an hour, which is relatively good for unskilled labour. Nevertheless, he found that over the years, his Latin American workers tended to hang around longer. And so when they recommended friends and family members during expansion periods, he would hire them as well.

But even small business owners who have had positive experiences with immigrants are not immune from the immigration concerns facing the country since 9-11.

According to Marco, part-owner of a small manufacturing facility in Montreal's East end, Canada needs to better screen its immigrants, especially in the contentious refugee category.

"They seem to be letting in anyone who wants to come, without doing any background checks," Marco said. "If we don't watch out, we'll be getting all the troublemakers."

Despite his concerns, between 60 and 70 per cent of the workers in Marco's plant were born outside Canada, and he has high praise for them. "They are very good workers. They don't complain, and they don't change jobs," Marco said. "It's not hard to find Canadians. But after training they tend to move on, and then we have to spend time and money to train someone else."

While the public policy implications surrounding immigration are extremely complex, one thing seems certain: many small business owners would be unhappy if there were to be a crackdown.

peter@peterdiekmeyer.com
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