The Canadian News

Canada expands immigration program for undocumented construction workers in GTA

By Nicholas Keung Immigration Reporter

To help address Canada’s housing crisis, the federal government is expanding a small-scale pilot project that offers permanent residence for out-of-status construction workers who are already working underground in the sector here.

On Friday, the government said it is doubling the annual number of available spots in the program from 500 workers — plus their family members — to 1,000, as part of its plan to ease the labour shortage in skilled trades.

Potential applicants are required to first identify themselves to the Canadian Labour Congress, which pre-screens and refers qualified candidates for final assessment by the immigration department. Eligible candidates have until Jan. 2, 2024, to apply.

“This pilot program is a significant step forward in addressing critical labour shortages for the Greater Toronto Area by supporting stability in the construction industry and bringing workers out of the underground economy,” Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said in a statement.

“By providing regular pathways for out-of-status migrants, we are not only protecting workers and their families, but also safeguarding Canada’s labour market and ensuring that we can retain the skilled workers we need to grow our economy and build our communities.”

In Ontario, the construction sector had 28,360 jobs waiting to be filled in the second quarter of last year, up from 20,895 over the same period in 2021.

Last November, Fraser raised eyebrows when he unveiled Canada’s multi-year immigration plan to bring in 465,000 new permanent residents in 2023, as well as 485,000 in 2024 and 500,000 in 2025 despite concerns over a looming recession.

While the majority of Canadians welcome a higher immigration level, some worry about whether the country will be able to accommodate so many more people amid a tight rental and housing market, fearing the measures could drive up housing costs further.

“We’re pushing people to regions that have more capacity to absorb newcomers. It’s not a coincidence that we’re talking about establishing stronger regional pathways,” Fraser said then, referring to immigration programs that offer incentives for newcomers to settle in smaller, rural communities.

“We’re not going to solve this problem if we don’t build more housing. Realistically, we need to leverage the new flexibilities that will kick in in 2023 to do targeted (immigration) draws for people who have the skills to build more houses.”

There are as many as 500,000 undocumented residents estimated to be in Canada. Many work precarious and often exploitative jobs in construction, cleaning, caregiving, food processing and agriculture.

The vast majority of undocumented residents came to Canada legally, only to later lose status because of issues with student visas, temporary work permits or asylum claims, advocates say.

Those issues are born out of an increasingly temporary immigration system, where many residents struggle to extend short-term permits and gain permanent residency.

One of Fraser’s mandated priorities from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was to explore more ways to regularize undocumented residents.

The immigration department has completed research and consultation for a broader regularization program based on the construction worker pilot. Cabinet is currently weighing different options for a final plan, the Star has learned.

“Out-of-status workers are vulnerable to employer exploitation and abuse, and they and their families live with limited access to education, health and social programs,” noted Bea Bruske, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, in a news release.

“The extension of the out-of-status construction workers in the GTA initiative for 2023 will help more vulnerable workers and their families during these uncertain times.”

Under the construction worker pilot program, only undocumented construction workers who live in Toronto, Durham, Halton, Peel and York regions qualify.

To be eligible, an applicant must have:

  • Entered legally initially as a temporary resident and lived in Canada for at least five years;
  • A family member living in Canada who is a Canadian citizen or permanent resident, or a spouse or child in Canada; and
  • No previous offences that would make them inadmissible to Canada other than a breach of the immigration law for overstaying in the country.

The job categories that qualify for the program include: trades and skilled transport and equipment operators; maintenance and equipment operation trades; residential and commercial installers and servicers; heavy equipment operators (except crane); and construction trades helpers and labourers.

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