There is talk in Canada by the recently elected federal Conservative (Tory) government to boot to all undocumented workers out of the country. It is hard to say if this may be just political rhetoric by a government looking for reaction. The Tories, after all, are a minority government that can’t risk too many unpopular moves if they want to stay in power.
Nonetheless, a report in a major Toronto daily newspaper indicated concern among immigration lawyers and consultants that illegal workers are being deported—some with no more than two weeks’ notice. If so, construction leaders and major contractors wonder if Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government is testing the waters before it initiates a sweeping move to send tens of thousands of construction workers back to their homelands.
Nic Faienza, of Granolite Company Limited, an exterior insulation and finish systems contractor in the Greater Toronto Area, says his gut reaction is that the Feds won’t push the button because it could leave a gaping hole in the skilled labor pool. There is an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 undocumented construction workers in the GTA alone.
Many, if not most, undocumented workers in the construction industry are employed in the lowrise residential sector, says Hugh Laird, executive director of the Interior Systems Contractors Association of Ontario. If the Tories actually kick out all illegal immigrants, the blow might be softened by the fact that residential construction activity is expected to drop off by about 5 percent this year in the GTA.
However, if the feds were to send 15,000 workers in the construction industry packing, even if they were all in residential, other construction sectors would feel the blow as workers shift from other sectors to fill the residential gap. That could result in a building slow-down, with projects not meeting deadlines—particularly in the non-union sector where most illegals work.
Furthermore, the value of a skilled worker would rise, meaning non-union sector employers would have to shell out more bucks to keep workers from jumping ship to the highest bidder.
Patrick Dillon, business manager, Building & Construction Trades Council of Ontario, says when the George W. Bush government issued a similar credo to clean southern U.S. regions of illegal immigrants, there was a backlash from employers that caused the government to rethink the move. "I think that is probably what will happen here,” Dillon says.
ISCA and other construction associations lobbied the federal government for amnesty on undocumented workers several years ago when construction was at its peak, but after 9/11, no government was willing to risk such a political folly.
Laird advises any of his members that employ undocumented workers to seriously consider what repercussions they could face under the new Tory regime.
Granolite employs some workers under a temporary work permit program called CREWS – Construction Recruitment External Workers Services,set up by the federal Liberals with the Greater Toronto Home Builders Association several years ago. "They pay their taxes. They even pay employment insurance. The funny thing is, if they are unemployed, they can’t collect,” Faienza says.
Many illegal construction workers are employed in the underground economy. Dillon says one means of limiting the underground economy that his group and others have lobbied for is the creation of a registry for all construction workers in Ontario.
"We have to realize that keeping undocumented workers is supporting a false economy. At some point, if we all went undocumented, who would pay taxes?,” Dillon says.
About the Author
Don Procter is free-lance writer in Ontario, Canada.