OTTAWA—The federal government has no idea how many people might be working in Canada’s underground economy, but officials believe the number of illegal immigrants employed in low-paying jobs could be as high as 400,000.
A House of Commons committee discussing the issue said many of the workers enter the country on temporary visas and are now filling jobs most Canadians refuse to embrace.
However, the inability of officials to gauge how big the situation could be, has made it difficult to devise government policy to deal with the issue, said Liberal MP Andrew Telegdi, who chairs the committee.
The introduction of exit visas, which track the number of visitors who stay beyond their scheduled trip to Canada, has been discussed as a way of collecting data.
But with underground workers quietly relied upon to fuel the economy, Canada may also look to study U.S. efforts to legitimize underground workers, a process also known as regularization, Telegdi said.
The federal government has acknowledged Canada’s immigration standards are not addressing the inability of some industries, such as construction or agriculture, to fill vacant positions.
“We have to change the criteria for people getting into the country. We have to give more weight to people that are working in jobs that are hard to fill,” Telegdi said in an interview. “With these people if they are staying out of trouble and they are working, then they would be fairly easy to regularize.”
The United States has tried for years to determine the number of underground workers, with estimates there running as high as 12 million.
While the U.S. has designed aspects of its census program to estimate the figures, Canada is well behind, said Jeffrey Reitz, a professor of ethnic and immigration studies at the University of Toronto. “As far as I’m aware, no one has ever attempted such a study in Canada.”
President George W. Bush made overtures to the Mexican community during the last election, acknowledging the importance of undocumented workers to the U.S. economy, but a program to legitimize some of those workers has since fallen off the table, prompting criticism that it was used to attract votes.
How the Canadian government will address the situation isn’t clear. Telegdi said Ottawa may have to look at revamping some of its immigration policies once it gets a handle on the size of the underground worker situation.
“We just don’t know. Nobody knows, everybody’s guessing,” he said. “But the reality is, if we were able to get rid of all the people here illegally tomorrow, it would hurt the economy. So what’s out of kilter is our system.”