Thank you, Madam Chair.
I am in the regional county municipality of Montmagny, Quebec, right next to where my fellow witnesses are. My job is to help with the settlement and integration of temporary foreign workers, and other newcomers, in the region. The bulk of that population is employed in industrial businesses and plants. Not many of them work in agriculture. We are also in contact with the workers, the companies who hire them and community organizations.
Allow me to paint you the employment picture. The region is made up mostly of small and medium-sized businesses. We are not home to big corporations. As is the case in the greater Chaudière-Appalaches area, we have the lowest unemployment rate in all of Quebec. I haven't done any comparisons with the rest of Canada, but our unemployment rate is very low. Many of the businesses still rely on manual labour. They have a long way to go in terms of integrating automated and robotic systems.
Now, I'll paint you the recruitment picture. After looking for workers in the Canadian workforce, businesses came up against the challenges of being in a region, known as regionalization. Notably, the immigrant population is concentrated in the greater Montreal area, Quebec's largest city. For a long time, we tried offering those individuals jobs to draw them to the region, about a three-hour drive east of Montreal. A pandemic, of course, compounds those challenges and makes inter-regional travel complicated, but it is not the only factor.
The reality is we face a greater labour shortage now than we did before the pandemic, and the impacts are being felt by more businesses across many sectors, ranging from stores and service providers to restaurants. These are businesses that did not have the problem pre-pandemic and did not necessarily rely on foreign workers. Consider this: well-known restaurant chain Tim Hortons has been forced to bring in workers from abroad, Madagascar, in particular.
The pandemic resulted in longer processing times across the board, including for renewing permits, obtaining Quebec selection certificates, applying for permanent residence and requesting labour market impact assessments. Those increased wait times created problems. The workers and businesses we deal with regularly share that view.
The region was fortunate in that sectors were not affected by closures, aside from a few production lines. Some workers were, however, laid off, and they had a lot of trouble finding other jobs under the circumstances. Technically, it is possible for them to find work elsewhere, but in actuality, the process is extremely complicated. Even when another employer wants to hire them, without an active LMIA, the worker cannot afford to wait until the LMIA process is complete.
Money was a problem during the pandemic. Of course, we provided as much help as we could to workers, who often struggle with English or French, not to mention administrative jargon. It was hard for them to access financial help, but with our assistance, the system worked fairly well.
In addition, the border closures during the pandemic were especially hard on temporary workers who were supposed to arrive in Canada.
I want to stress, however, that challenges existed before the pandemic. In our view, the temporary foreign worker program is not flexible enough for businesses or workers, at least not the vast majority.
For example, the program makes it virtually impossible for a worker with a closed work permit to change jobs, even though that option might suit both the employer's and the worker's needs. Of course, it is possible to request an open work permit for vulnerable workers, but the circumstances do not always present as difficult and critical. In some cases, the employer may just—