Canada's Human Resources Minister Diane Finley speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 11, 2013. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Alberta labour group questions Ottawa’s speedy foreign workers approval program

CALGARY — The Globe and Mail

Questions are being raised about a program Ottawa said would speed the approval process for highly skilled temporary foreign workers, especially those in the trades, that has been widely taken up by fast-food chains – especially in labour-hungry Alberta.

“It stretches the bounds of credibility to suggest that all of these approvals are for highly skilled workers,” said Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan. “It wasn’t supposed to be for them, and they should have been rejected.”

According to data obtained by the Alberta Federation of Labour, the province’s largest labour group, Alberta employers have flocked to the Accelerated-Labour Market Opinion program, winning 55 per cent of a total 4,839 approvals given across the country last year. A Labour Market Opinion (LMO) is a major step in bringing a foreign worker temporarily into Canada. The accelerated program is designed to cut red tape, and to give employers an initial response to a request to hire a temporary foreign worker within 10 days, instead of the usual 12 to 14 weeks.

To set the tone of the program, Human Resources and Skills Development Minister Diane Finley made the April, 2012, announcement in the industrial hamlet of Nisku, Atla., which produces machinery and equipment for energy producers.

But under federal access to information law, the Alberta Federation of Labour requested the names of the companies who received accelerated LMO approvals between April 15 and Dec. 18, 2012. It found that more than half of the Alberta approvals under the program are “questionable,” as they have been given to a who’s who of restaurants and fast-food chains including Subway, Taco Time, Dairy Queen, Tim Hortons, Wok Box and others – along with gas stations, convenience stores and hotels.

On a national scale, the rate of questionable approvals is just under 50 per cent.

Mr. McGowan acknowledged some of these employers could be accessing the accelerated program for management positions or other highly skilled occupations.

“However, we think this is highly unlikely given the sheer volume of the approvals for these types of businesses. Companies like Tim Hortons simply don’t have that many managers on any one site, and the same is true for other restaurants and gas stations,” said Mr. McGowan, who will formally release the findings at a press conference on Tuesday.

When the government announced the new accelerated program 12 months ago, it said the program will apply only to high-skilled jobs at first, but could be expanded to include other occupations. No one from Ms. Finley’s office was available for comment or further clarification on Monday.

Mr. McGowan released the data following the news this week that Royal Bank of Canada had used an outsourcing deal that will see some staff lose their jobs to foreign workers. He said these high-profile cases are a sign the temporary foreign worker program is not functioning as it should, and could drive down wages for Canadian workers.

Before April of last year, federal rules required foreign workers to receive the "average wage" paid to Canadian workers in the same region. But now employers are allowed to pay up to 15 per cent less than that average wage, in some cases.

However, many Alberta employers have said they have a difficult time attracting and keeping workers and need temporary foreign workers. Restaurant owners and other small businesses have said it’s difficult to compete with the wages paid by the province’s oil and gas sector.

 

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