Labour Mobility in Canada: Issues and Policy Recommendations

December 8, 2014

Executive Summary

Labour mobility refers to the free movement of workers between provinces, regions, or countries. When labour mobility between two jurisdictions is high, a worker in one can easily cross the border to deliver services in the other. High labour mobility is economically efficient, because workers can move to where they are most needed. However, there are many barriers to labour mobility, such as certification requirements when crossing provincial boundaries or visa requirements when entering another country. Typically, governments impose these barriers on labour mobility to advance legitimate social interests, such as encouraging local development or ensuring public safety.

In Canada, labour mobility is governed by a patchwork of legislation and treaties at the provincial, federal, and international level. Taken together, these programs, laws, and agreements seek to strike a balance between the free movement of individual workers and the broader public interest. This labour mobility regime has been more successful within Canada than between Canada and other countries.

At the interprovincial level, workers are mostly free to move between provinces to find employment. The 1995 Agreement on Internal Trade (AIT), which was updated in 2009, requires that all provinces recognize the existing training, skills, and certification of workers in regulated occupations, ensuring that these professionals are qualified to work in all provinces and territories (there are some exceptions). In general, this framework encourages mobility while respecting the provinces’ right to regulate. Notably, this framework does not extend to apprentices and other trainees, who in most cases cannot cross provincial boundaries to complete their training.

At the international level, Canada’s labour mobility regime is much more convoluted and far more problematic. Numerous programs and treaties pursue contradictory goals and ultimately lead to a variety of negative social outcomes, including wage suppression and inflated unemployment. The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) in particular has been widely criticized for its concerning social impact. Not only have migrant workers who have entered Canada through this program been abused, with few avenues for recourse, but the program has become a crutch for entire industries unwilling to pay Canadian workers an appropriate wage.

In addition to the TFWP, Canada offers a wide variety of lesser-known International Mobility Programs (IMPs) that facilitate the temporary entry into Canada of large numbers of migrant workers every year. For example, the International Experience Canada Program (IEC) provides “working holiday” visas to 60,000 international youth workers every year. A further 30,000 workers enter Canada every year as “intra-corporate transferees” (ICTs), student workers, or as the spouses of migrant workers. Altogether, around 60% of the more than 200,000 migrant workers entering Canada every year, do so through Canada’s International Mobility Programs. Crucially, unlike the TFWP, these programs do not require a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA), which is a government review process intended to ensure that migrant workers are only hired where legitimate labour shortages exist. The potential labour market impact of all of these workers is startling, although a lack of data collection makes it impossible to draw concrete conclusions.

Unlike the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which is being wound down in response to public outcry, the International Mobility Programs are poised to expand in the coming years. New international treaties such as the Canada-European Union’s Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) will provide even greater unrestricted access to the Canadian labour market for certain categories of migrant workers. These programs and agreements deserve far more attention than they have received to date.


Within Canada, workers should have the right to move anywhere for work; apprentices and other trainees in particular should have greater mobility rights than they currently possess. Increasing employer investment in workplace skills development will also help to strengthen the domestic labour market. So long as there are Canadians looking for work, the solution to long-term labour and skills shortages should not be temporary migrant labour.

In the case of legitimate short-term skills shortages, or where long-term labour shortages cannot be addressed through investment in the domestic labour market, workers from other countries should absolutely be able to enter Canada. However, these workers should enjoy the same rights and protections as Canadian workers, and should be offered a pathway to permanent residency. A robust immigration system is a more appropriate and democratic avenue for shaping Canada’s labour mobility regime than secretive trade agreement negotiations.

The free movement of labour is economically efficient and is a worthy policy goal, so long as its social consequences are understood and appropriately addressed. In the interest of greater understanding, Canada’s labour mobility policies at both the national and international levels need to be informed by better data. The International Mobility Programs are especially poorly monitored and demand a thorough review and more stringent data collection protocols moving forward.

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