Foreign workers ‘will hurt’ Alberta employees, labour leader says

CALGARY — Overreliance on temporary foreign workers to remedy Alberta's labour shortages will hurt both domestic and imported workforces, local labour and immigration organizations said.

The federal government introduced several changes to its temporary foreign worker program last month, including measures that would allow employers to pay wages up to 15 per cent below the average in their region. Demand for workers as industries in Alberta continue to expand should lead to higher wages, but the province's largest union organization said the federal government's moves will do the opposite.

"They're using workers as pawns to drive down wages and conditions at a time when wages and conditions should be going up in Alberta's hot labour market," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

The program allows employers to pay temporary workers up to 15 per cent less for high-skill occupations and up to five per cent below average wages for low-skill jobs. The wages are determined using Statistics Canada data; low-skill workers can't be paid less than the local minimum wage.

Ottawa said the wage rules offer "flexibility" to employers and does not permit them to pay a foreign worker less than a Canadian doing the same job in the same region.

"Under the old wage structure, employers were required to pay temporary foreign workers at least the average wage for an occupation in a specific region, regardless of what they were paying their Canadian employees. In many cases, this resulted in employers paying temporary foreign workers more than Canadians," a spokesperson from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada said in an e-mailed statement.

While McGowan has specific criticisms of the wage rules, his union's aim is to see the temporary foreign worker program abolished.

Rather than investing the time and expense of training apprentices, industries that rely heavily on tradespeople can bring in foreign workers instead, McGowan said, adding that short-term fix could lead to a long-term, structural shortage of skilled tradespeople if Canadian workers opt for other occupations because of a lack of jobs in industries employing temporary foreign labour.

"There's no doubt employers in places like Alberta are having a hard time finding the workers they need," he said, "but it's become the first choice (for employers), rather than the last resort. Policy-makers should be looking first at finding ways of opening doors for unemployed workers here in Canada."

In 2011, Citizenship and Immigration Canada recorded 190,769 temporary workers entering the country; 25,542 in Alberta. An annual measurement on Dec. 1 counted a total of 300,111 TFWs in Canada; 58,228 in Alberta.

Under the program, workers can stay for four years and aren't provided with an opportunity to settle in Canada when their term is over.

An advocate for new Canadians said a long-term strategy would yield better results for employers and be more fair to workers coming to Canada.

"They ignore the fact that some of these positions people are being hired for are permanent jobs, so why are they not addressing that through an immigration policy?" said Fariborz Birjandian, executive director of the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society.

Calgary Herald, Tues May 22 2012
Byline: Jason Van Rassel

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