Federal government making it easier to hire temporary foreign workers

NISKU – Alberta businesses, frustrated by red tape and delays in hiring temporary foreign workers, got a break Wednesday from the federal government.

Human Resources and Skills Development Minister Diane Finley announced that companies with an unblemished two-year history of hiring temporary workers from abroad will be allowed to apply for fast-tracked hiring permission.

"Employers with a strong track record in need of high-skilled workers will be able to obtain a Labour Market Opinion (LMO) within 10 business days," Finley said. "Even better news, this is effective immediately."

The Alberta Federation of Labour, however, said the announcement isn't all good news.

The new rules will result in lower wages for skilled workers and aggravate problems associated with a temporary foreign workforce, including people staying on illegally after their contracts expire, said AFL secretary-treasurer Nancy Furlong.

"If there is an ongoing need for workers, why not bring them in as permanent citizens?" asked Furlong, noting that labour groups were not invited to consultations over the changes.

Until now, companies had to pay workers what is known as the "prevailing wage." But that requirement now changes in the high-skill trades category.

"For added flexibility, wages up to 15 per cent below the average wage rate will be accepted so long as it can be clearly demonstrated the same wages are being paid to Canadian workers," Finley said at Wednesday's news conference in Nisku.

Furlong argued that 15-per-cent rule "interferes with supply and demand forces in the economy."

But getting that break on wages is a key factor to Ron Buchhorn, whose company runs a manufacturing business in Alberta and desperately needs welders and heavy-duty mechanics.

"Manufacturing cannot compete with wages in the primary industries — oilsands and mining and potash," said Buchhorn, vice-president of human resources for Advanced Engineering Products. His company is looking for 80 skilled workers for its operations here and in Saskatchewan.

In Alberta, "we can't compete with fly-in" work camps around Fort McMurray, which pay high wages and cover housing costs for workers, he added.

The company, which received the first speedy LMO on Wednesday, has looked for workers in Ontario and the Maritimes, but can't find the people it needs. These new rules "will enable us to increase our manufacturing capacity and increase service so we'll be more successful."

Under federal rules, employers must apply for LMOs before they can hire a foreign worker. The company must prove it has made an effort to recruit locally and within the country. If that was not successful, the company must then apply to Service Canada for permission to hire someone for a two-year period from outside the country.

But the process to get an LMO has been taking months, which is too long for many companies, says David MacLean, spokesman for the Alberta Enterprise Group, a business group that lobbies on economic issues.

"The temporary foreign worker process, as it stands, was too burdensome, too cumbersome, too complicated and there was too much red tape," said MacLean. "It just wasn't working to meet the needs in this economy."

The new rules apply to skilled labour categories only and the federal government expects to process about 150,000 temporary foreign worker applications from across the country this year, said Finley.

Bill Stewart of Merit Contractors Association calls the changes a step in the right direction, but just one piece of the puzzle to solve the looming labour shortage. His organization of non-union construction companies is eager to see details about how companies qualify to get on the preferred list.

"Recruiting internationally is not the first choice for construct industry as it's not cheap," he said.

Stewart says the merit contractors are also heartened by the efforts of federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who is looking at changing immigration rules to let more skilled tradesmen into the country. Only a fraction of the 250,000 immigrants admitted annually are skilled workers, Kenney said, and that has to change.

Finley said the new system will cut paperwork for businesses since they'll be able to apply online. New compliance monitoring will ensure companies are treating workers fairly. She also said businesses who violate the rules will have their ability to hire temporary foreign workers suspended for two years.

Calgary Herald, Wed Apr 25 2012
Byline: Sarah O'Donnell and Sheila Pratt

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