Ottawa set to unveil sweeping changes to foreign workers program

Ottawa — The Globe and Mail

Canada's Immigration Minister Jason Kenney speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa September 18, 2012. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

The federal government will announce sweeping changes to the temporary foreign workers program Monday, aimed at ensuring non-Canadian workers are employed in this country only after every effort has been made to put Canadians in the jobs first.

A key reform, The Globe and Mail has learned from a government official speaking on background, will require employers to put plans in place to transition to domestic workers before permits to hire foreign workers are granted.

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Other measures, to be announced either Monday or at a later date, are expected to require employers to pay a fee for a permit to hire from overseas. Regulations that allow some foreign workers to be paid less than their Canadian equivalents could be tightened.

The goal is to provide Canadians looking for work with a path to available jobs while also dousing a growing political controversy that could damage the Conservative government’s reputation for economic competence.

The number of temporary foreign workers – from those brought in to harvest crops, to workers in tourist industries, to factory workers, to highly skilled professionals – swelled to 446,847 in 2011 from an estimated 186,753 in 2001.

There are an increasing number of complaints about Canadians being turned down for jobs because an employer preferred temporary help from overseas. The issue exploded several weeks ago, when Royal Bank of Canada employees complained they were being asked to train foreign workers who were taking over their jobs, forcing the government to accelerate reforms that were already in motion.

In response, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Human Resources Minister Dianne Finley will unveil new rules Monday aimed at curbing abuse and quelling domestic discontent. One of the most important new rules will involve something known as a Labour Market Opinion (LMO), which employers must acquire from Human Resources before they can bring in foreign workers.

Starting in a few months, employers seeking an LMO will have to put forward their plan for transitioning to an all-Canadian work force. The plan must include commitments to properly advertise for, recruit, train and retain Canadian workers.

An LMO will not be granted unless the transition plan is satisfactory, and future LMOs could be denied if the plan is not successfully implemented. The reforms, the official said, “will require employers to do more to recruit and train Canadians and ensure they have first crack at jobs.”

The government is faced with a difficult set of scales to balance. With chronic or growing job shortages in unskilled, skilled and professional categories, employers are desperate for workers who will allow them to remain in business, or grow.

But a rising number of Canadians suspect that those same employers are taking the easy and cheap route of recruiting foreigners who will do the jobs for less and who can be easily exploited, even as unemployment in Canada remains stubbornly above the 7-per-cent mark.

The reforms – which will also address the question of wage discrepancies between foreign and Canadian workers doing identical jobs – aim to reduce abuse of the system while not shutting off the tap supplying an essential source of workers.

These changes – combined with Employment Insurance reforms that require unemployed workers to travel further and be less choosy in accepting employment, and a Canada Job Grant that encourages employers and federal and provincial governments to jointly fund job-training programs – aim to correct what many see as Canada’s most pressing economic challenge: finding jobs for workers and workers for jobs in an age of chronic labour shortages and high unemployment.

Word of the impending change drew a negative reaction on Sunday from the Alberta Federation of Labour, a group that has been vocal in its criticism of the temporary foreign worker program. “This is more slippery politics from the Harper government,” Federation president Gil McGown told The Globe and Mail. “They’re trying to give the impression that something big is being done to address public concerns … when in reality the foundations of the program remain unchanged.”

The Federation supports replacing the current program with a more narrowly focused alternative that is geared to bringing highly skilled workers such as academics and performers to Canada on a temporary basis.

With a file from Ivan Semeniuk

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