Federal government will close wage gap for temporary foreign workers

OTTAWA — Changes to the ailing temporary foreign worker program unveiled Monday are little more than an admission of error and fall short of the massive overhaul the Conservative government promised, critics say.

The federal government announced it was dropping the confusing and seldom used 15-per-cent wage differential for foreign workers introduced in the last budget and temporarily suspending a controversial fast-track process brought in a year ago as a means of improving the program.

Effective immediately, employers will have to pay temporary foreign workers the prevailing regional wage average Canadian workers doing the same job earn because a plan to build in flexibility to account for experience and performance didn't work.

The Accelerated Labour Market Opinion process introduced last year to speed up the issuing of work permits was meant to better meet labour market demand in high-skill fields. Now, that too will be suspended pending a review of the program to make sure it's not being used to fill low-skill service jobs at, for example, Tim Hortons.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Human Resources parliamentary secretary Kellie Leitch made the announcement shortly after the government introduced its budget implementation bill.

"We are concerned about examples of the program not being used as intended. Canadians must always have the first crack at available jobs in our economy," Kenney said.

"The temporary foreign worker program was intended to fill acute labour shortages on a temporary basis only, not to displace Canadian workers."

A total of seven changes were introduced Monday. They include regulatory and administrative reforms as well as legislative changes contained in the budget that require the approval of Parliament.

Critics, however, argued the two key measures are simply a reversal of earlier mistakes.

"This is not the first time, as you know, that the Conservatives have said that they wanted to fix the program. Twice already they said that they were going to do that but then made things even worse," NDP human resources critic Chris Charlton said.

The NDP and other critics have complained the wage differential ultimately drove down wages and working conditions.

Charlton said the new measures don't address the need to recruit, hire and train Canadians first or the need for better labour-market information. There's also nothing in it to address unfair treatment and the rights of workers, she said, adding a comprehensive review is needed.

"The reality is, they have made an absolute mess of the temporary foreign worker program," she said.

"What we really need is a proper study with outside experts to make sure we get it right this time."

Liberal human resources critic Rodger Cuzner added the government may be "trying to sell this announcement as new reforms" but the truth is that it's simply promising to enforce rules that already exist.

Worse, it's "an embarrassing reversal" of changes the Harper government introduced in recent years, he said, adding he will introduce a motion asking a Commons committee to study the program.

The Alberta Federation of Labour, meanwhile, released a report Monday that found three out of four jobs created in the provinces over the last few years have been filled by temporary foreign workers instead of Canadians. When 8,600 jobs were lost in 2010, the province still admitted some 23,000 foreign workers, president Gil McGowan said.

He said the program is "not filling a need" but is "flooding the market," that it's become the "a first choice for employers rather than a last resort." McGowan added that the food-services industry has become a "low wage ghetto" in booming Alberta, where seniors looking to earn a little extra cash and teenagers looking for their first job are paying the price.

"It's clear at least in the province of Alberta that the program is being used to displace Canadians from employment, it's being used as a tool to suppress wages and it's giving employers and excuse to abdicate their responsibility to train the next generation of Canadians," he said, adding it's affecting construction trades as well as the service industry.

Among measures introduced Monday is a plan to boost the government's authority to suspend or revoke work permits and labour-market opinions, the latter of which pave the way for work permits to be issued where there is a genuine shortage of Canadian workers.

In the wake of a recent instance in which Royal Bank of Canada employees found themselves training temporary foreign workers to take over their jobs, the government said it will add new questions to employer applications to ensure the program isn't being used to outsource Canadian jobs.

The reforms are in addition to several already laid out in the 2013 budget.

Employers will also need to broaden the length and reach of job postings and produce a plan for transitioning to a Canadian workforce over time when applying for permits under the program.

New user fees for employers seeking to hire temporary foreign workers are also expected to offset costs currently absorbed by taxpayers.

The government is also taking steps to amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations so that companies cannot make knowledge of a language other than French or English a requirement when hiring through the temporary foreign worker process.

"These changes will strengthen and improve the temporary foreign worker program to support our economic growth and recovery," Leitch said.

While agricultural employers could see permits revoked if companies are found to have misused the program, seasonal agricultural workers will otherwise be unaffected by the reforms.

An ongoing review of the program that began in fall 2011 will continue and more reforms are expected this fall, following a second round of consultations with businesses, trade organizations, unions and other stakeholders.

Ottawa Citizen, Tuesday, Apr. 30, 2013
Byline: Tobi Cohen, PostMedia News

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