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Immigration Department continues trend to end freeze on hiring long-term contractors as permanent staff

Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada staffing over the last half-decade has bucked larger public service population trends; it has grown instead of cutting.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen's department this spring became the fourth to halt a Harper-era policy suspension that prevented long-term contract workers from accumulating hours that would allow them to become permanent employees after three years.
The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

PUBLISHED :Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017 12:00 AM

Contract workers at the federal Immigration Ministry, whose population has nearly doubled in the last five years, can finally again accumulate days towards becoming automatically permanent employees, after an ease-up this spring in Harper-era cost-cutting.

Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada has confirmed that on May 29 it restarted a policy it had suspended Oct. 3, 2011 during public service cuts to help balance a federal budget that was at the time in the red. This could mean more contract workers now become permanent employees.

Like several departments facing budget cuts a half-decade ago, IRCC opted out of the policy that guaranteed contract (or “term”) workers would be hired after hitting the three-year mark on the same job. The objective of the policy, launched in 2003 and suspended by it and some other departments in 2011, was to “balance the fair treatment of term employees with the need for operational flexibility.”

At the end of 2011, the department had 229 casual staff and 536 term (also known as contract) workers. By March 2016, according to the latest publicly available government data, IRCC had 996 casual and 1,075 term staff. While permanent staff also increased slightly, terms moved from being 13 per cent compared to the permanent population to 25 per cent. For a stretch of six years, these contract employees couldn’t accumulate time towards permanent-employee status in their departments.

  

The spike in casual and term workers is one of the reasons the Immigration Department has bucked a wider public service trend that saw it add staff while other departments were shrinking. While some departments started hiring back when Justin Trudeau’s Liberals came to power in 2015, most have not recovered from the 26,000 jobs lost in the three years following the Deficit Reduction Action Plan meant to trim the federal deficit and save $4-billion. By March 2016, the public service had dropped nine per cent from 2011 when it peaked at 282,352 public servants employed.

The Canada Employment and Immigration Union had been asking for the policy reversal for years said Paul Croes, its national vice-president for IRCC, but there was no will to change because other departments also weren’t budging.

“It’s been quite demoralizing for our staff in the sense that we’re one of the last departments to eliminate the freeze. It’s been quite frustrating for our department and much more for the staff because they are trying to do the best and not getting much for it.”

That makes it the third department in the last four months to lift a policy suspension that kept long-time term employees from becoming permanent. All invoked the suspension in 2011, and Environment and Climate Change Canada and Employment and Social Development Canada shifted back this spring, while Public Services and Procurement Canada lifted its moratorium on rolling term employees into full-time employment last year.

  

The Term Employment Policy was launched in 2003 by the Chrétien Liberal government and less than a decade later under Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper departments started exercising the option to opt out of that policy.

“The casuals were hired in huge numbers during the freeze, and supposedly after the freeze that is supposed to come down,” said Mr. Croes.

“It’s a question of dignity of employees,” he said.

Government data shows the changes in staff each year classified as permanent and term, with totals also including casual and student workers. All numbers are at year-end with the exception of 2016, which references March numbers. The Hill Times graph created with Infogram

Since 2013 especially, the department consistently increased its use of casual and term workers. Casual workers tripled between the end of 2011 and start of 2016, and terms have nearly doubled. Departmental spokesperson Nancy Chan said by email that the department had received “significant funding” for various projects during that time, most of which has been temporary money.

  

“Hiring of casuals and terms has allowed IRCC to manage its workforce responsibly,” she said.

The Privy Council clerk’s 2017 report revealed that fewer people were employed permanently in the core public service between 2015 and 2016 despite a growth in the total number of employees by about one per cent. While the IRCC doesn’t contribute to the dip in permanent numbers, its disproportionate number of casual and contract staff reflects that wider trend revealed in the PCO report.

Asked if the numbers have shifted since and for the most recent numbers, Ms. Chan said the staffing numbers were not publicly available.

 

Staff deal with increasing immigration targets, departmental changes

Under the Liberal government, Canada’s immigration targets have jumped to the current 300,000 after years in which the annual base target was set at 260,000.

“We’ve increased our immigration numbers dramatically,” said Mr. Croes, noting the influx of Syrian refugees has been the biggest impact for the members he represents. “Staff were taken off regular processing and put into this particular initiative without backfilling. That affected the processing times…We still kind of kept fairly in tune with the numbers that we were supposed to do. People worked quite hard without the added staff that we had.”

Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada appeared to be outside of the public service trend, which dipped nine per cent in total staffing, while IRCC had a 34 per cent increase between December 2011 and March 2016.

Steady staffing to address immigration levels was one reason to insulate the department from outside trends.

“There is a lot more immigration coming in so you need to have more staff. The systems that are in place are slightly more efficient but there’s also some contracting out,” said Mr. Croes.

But the numbers also don’t reflect the reorganization in the public service during those years, namely two key transfers in the summer of 2013: moving the passport program and International Experience Canada from Global Affairs Canada to IRCC.

With the passport program, IRCC drew in more than 450 employees “resulting in an overall growth of 34 per cent since December 2011,” the department said and another 40 came along with the International Experience handover.

With these transfers removed, the IRCC grew only 14 per cent since December 2011, or 2.8 per cent annually—still a considerable increase compared to the rest of the public service.

Also in 2013, the department said it received “a significant influx of funding for the Temporary Resident and Citizenship programs to keep up with increased volume demands,” adding about 333 full-time staff to the annual roster.

It easily counteracted the departments DRAP staff cuts in 2012, which reduced the IRCC workforce by about 283 people, as part of $71.2-million in savings.

“At the time, IRCC had been moving diligently towards an increasingly integrated, modernized, and centralized working environment,” Ms. Chan said. “Updated technology, along with a robust program integrity strategy, allowed processing to be done anywhere and in a more effective manner, therefore reducing the number of IRCC offices needed in Canada and abroad.”

Moving that work from abroad back to Canada also reduced full-time-equivalent staff by about 50.

swallen@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times