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Minister of Employment and Social Development Jason Kenney responds during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Wednesday May 14, 2014 . (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Minister of Employment and Social Development Jason Kenney responds during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Wednesday May 14, 2014 . (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Ottawa to cap number of foreign workers in low-wage jobs Add to ...

The Conservative government will cap the number of low-wage temporary foreign workers that employers can bring to Canada as part of sweeping policy reforms that will be announced on Friday.

The government will limit the number of foreign workers that companies, such as restaurants, can have at any location based on a percentage of their work force, The Globe and Mail has learned. The measure is expected to cut in half the number of people brought into the country each year for low-wage positions, which was 31,000 last year.

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It is unclear whether cutting the number in half was a goal for the latest changes in what has become one of Ottawa’s most controversial programs.

(What is the Temporary Foreign Worker Program? Read The Globe’s easy explanation)

The government will also raise the $275 fee charged to employers for each person it brings in under the temporary foreign worker program. Last month, Mr. Kenney told employer groups he was considering an amount closer to the $2,325 that is charged for a similar U.S. program. The government will also dramatically increase enforcement of the program’s rules, with more frequent inspections and heftier fines for violations.

Employment Minister Jason Kenney and Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander will announce the changes on Friday at 1:30 p.m. The government will have a closed-door technical briefing for reporters two hours earlier, an unusual move that suggests the changes will be significant.

“This government will fix the program. We will mend it, not end it,” Mr. Kenney said on Thursday in the House of Commons.

Mr. Kenney had previously floated the idea of forcing employers to pay temporary foreign workers more than the minimum or prevailing wage for a particular occupation. In response to feedback, that option has been dropped in favour of the caps for low-wage employees.

Sources did not indicate how the cap would work, or confirm the amount of the new fee.

The focus on low-skilled jobs is likely to face strong opposition from employer groups like Restaurants Canada and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which have urged the government not to restrict access to the program for this category.

The government has been on the defensive for months over two main sources of controversy. Allegations of abuse – including complaints about three McDonald’s franchises in Victoria – forced Ottawa to publish a list of employers who are banned from the program. Mr. Kenney also announced a temporary moratorium in April on access to the program for the food service sector.

Secondly, many economists have said the government’s work-force data are not detailed enough to produce evidence to support its labour-related policies.

In response to those concerns, Mr. Kenney this month announced spending of $15-million a year for two major new labour surveys.

Ottawa’s challenge is that the economy is running at very different speeds in different parts of the country. The Bank of Montreal recently described Alberta as “in a league of its own,” and Statistics Canada confirmed this week that job vacancies are highest there.

The foreign worker program covers a broad category of employees, including professionals on inter-company transfers. Much of the controversy has focused on the low-skilled sector. However, the program also came under scrutiny last year after the outsourcing of information technology jobs led to a public apology from the president of the Royal Bank of Canada.

While critics say the program is not needed to fill low-skilled positions, Restaurants Canada said this week that its concerns about labour shortages are supported by new Statistics Canada data showing the highest job vacancy rate in the country was in the accommodation and food services sector – even before the moratorium.

Opposition MPs criticized the government for introducing the changes just as Parliament breaks for the summer and depriving them of an opportunity to ask questions.

NDP MP Jinny Sims said Mr. Kenney makes “little tweaks” when the program comes under fire rather than a comprehensive overhaul.

“I’m really, really concerned that, once again, what we are going to see are cosmetic fixes,” she said.

Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland said the government is managing the program with “a complete lack of data” about the labour market.

“It is also creating a two-tier society, and I don’t think any of us want that,” she said.

The number of temporary foreign workers in a decade as of Dec. 1 of each year has grown 235 per cent, from 101,078 in 2002 to 338,221 in 2012.

Follow on Twitter: @curryb

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