Tories looking at review of foreign worker program

OTTAWA—The federal government is investigating the possible abuse of the temporary foreign workers hiring program by Canadian companies and is expected to overhaul it to put greater onus on businesses to seek out local employees before bringing in foreign workers.

Businesses that are turning to foreign workers to fill employee shortages are also expected to be required in future to do more to train Canadians for the skilled job vacancies now going to people from overseas, a senior government official said.

The review of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program has taken on new urgency as Prime Minister Stephen Harpers' government faces a firestorm of complaints that its policies are encouraging firms in Canada to replace Canadians with foreign workers and drive down wages.

"The Conservatives are enabling companies to exploit the program and avoid hiring Canadian workers," NDP deputy immigration critic Sadia Groguhé said Wednesday. "The point of the program is to complement Canadian workers, not substitute them."

Outrage over the government's foreign hiring plan blew up after it emerged that the Royal Bank of Canada was planning to shift the information technology work done by 45 Canadian employees to foreigners contracted by iGate, a U.S.-based outsourcing firm.

But the issue has been gathering steam since last year, when HD Mining International Ltd., a Chinese-backed coal mining operation in British Columbia, brought in 201 miners from China under the temporary workers program.

The federal government is investigating the applications leading up to the staffing changes at RBC and is also conducting a wider look at the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which has doubled in the last decade to 338,000 workers.

In the March 21 federal budget, the government said it planned to reform the program to ensure foreign workers are brought in only when Canadians are "genuinely" not available. The new rules will require employers to make more extensive efforts — including more advertising — to hire Canadians before becoming eligible to bring in foreign workers.

The government also wants to work with employers who "legitimately" rely on foreign workers to ensure the companies have a plan to move to a Canadian workforce, the budget said.

As well, the reforms would require companies to pay user fees to apply for permission to bring in foreign workers. But officials haven't said when the new rules will be put in place.

The government is also concerned about another recent measure for bringing in foreign workers quickly. The Accelerated Labour Market Opinion (ALMO) is a way to fast-track applications for skilled workers needed on a temporary basis by Canadian companies.

The Alberta Federation of Labour focused attention on this aspect of Canada's temporary worker arrangements after it obtained a list of 4,800 companies — many in the services industry — that were approved to bring in temporary help under ALMO last year.

"You look down this list and it's McDonalds, Tim Hortons, A&W, Subway Sandwiches," said Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan. "Are we supposed to believe that these are 'high-skill' employment opportunities?"

The government is looking at how "skilled workers" are defined under this program, a senior official said. Currently, a manager or supervisor in a service business can qualify as a skilled worker under the program, the official noted.

The government is "committed to fixing the (temporary worker) program to ensure that Canadians have first crack at jobs in Canada," a spokesperson for Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said. "The program exists to address real and acute labour shortages in certain sectors and regions across the country on a temporary basis. It was never meant to replace Canadians with foreign workers."

The Harper government is also concerned about another federal program called an intra-company transfer, which allows multinational companies to temporarily shift employees to Canada without the need to convince Ottawa that no Canadian can do the job. This measure is also being examined to see if it is being abused by companies wanting to avoid the usual procedures for bringing in foreign employees, the official said.

Ottawa Star, Wednesday Apr 10 2013
Byline: Les Whittington

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