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Thirty thousand companies have applied to the federal temporary foreign worker program in Canada, stretching to almost every corner of the economy. (JASON FRANSON FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Thirty thousand companies have applied to the federal temporary foreign worker program in Canada, stretching to almost every corner of the economy. (JASON FRANSON FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

The long list of Canadian firms that have sought temporary foreign workers Add to ...

The 33,000 companies and agencies who have applied to the federal temporary foreign worker program in Canada stretch to almost every corner of the economy, ranging from the biggest players in the finance and resource sectors to airlines, hotels, government agencies, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., according to documents obtained by The Globe and Mail.

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The lengthy list of companies and groups, obtained through federal Access to Information laws, spans 475 pages and demonstrates how widely used the federal program has become since it was expanded in 2006 to help Canadian employers deal with shortages of specialized skills in Canada.

In recent days, the program has come under the microscope after a Royal Bank of Canada employee alleged the bank was using temporary foreign workers to do the work of bank staff. The bank denies any violation of federal rules, saying it is outsourcing work to another company. It issued an apology Thursday over its handling of the matter.

But the list of companies using temporary foreign workers is massive, part of the reason the program has tripled to 338,189 workers in the last decade. Though the list of companies gives no indication of how many foreign workers each firm sought to hire, the documents reflect all applications made to Ottawa over a two-year period ending in June, 2012. Inclusion on the list implies no wrongdoing, but is merely a window into how widespread the practice of using temporary foreign workers has become.

In addition to Canada’s big banks, who are users of the program primarily for technology jobs such as software development, the roster also includes major car makers, universities, mining companies, technology firms, film production companies and a host of other sectors.

The country’s biggest telecom firms also employ temporary foreign workers, including Bell, Rogers Communications, Telus, and Shaw Communications. The food services industry is also a major player on the list. Well known names like Tim Hortons, which has been hiring temporary foreign workers since 2005, figure prominently in several provinces.

“Our owners turn to the temporary foreign worker program after they have exhausted all other avenues to fill job vacancies locally,” said Alexandra Cygal, Tim Hortons’ spokeswoman. “Without the employment program, many Tim Hortons restaurants would not be able to operate full time or, in many cases, remain open at all.”

Hotel owners say the program is used for jobs that are difficult to fill, particularly in markets with a labour shortage. The Days Inn & Suites in Strathmore, Alta., sought to employ two Filipino housekeepers, who are among the hotel’s best workers, general manager Doug Sholter said. “They are much more reliable,” he said. “They want to work the hours, and the quality of their work is, in many respects, superior.” He added the hotel pays those employees more because of their work ethic and seniority.

To use the program, companies must prove they can’t find the skills they need in the local market. Dozens of government organizations use the program including Health Canada and the Bank of Canada. The central bank hired 18 temporary foreign workers in 2012 for senior analyst positions, including 15 foreign PhD candidates. Provincial and municipal governments from across the country are also keen users of the program, according to the list.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday he is concerned about the extent the program is now being used and that it was only intended for “absolute and acute” skill shortages.

Several unexpected names show up on the list, including charities, church groups, and non-profit organizations such as the Girl Guides of Canada, which said it sought clearance to bring in an international camp counsellor for a summer program. Colleges and universities also use the program for specialists. Edmonton-based Guru Digital Arts College said it applied to the program to hire Nat Jones, considered a “legendary zombie guy” in the comic book world. Mr. Jones helped create an illustration program at the school. “There’s not a lot of comic book, legendary zombie illustrators in Canada,” college director Owen Brierley said. “It’s nice to have a reverse brain drain for once.”

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is also a user of the program, as are other broadcasters. A spokesman for the CBC said the broadcaster used the program six times last year: Hockey Night in Canada hired three hockey personalities under the temporary foreign worker program, while the public broadcaster also brought in three specialized equipment operators from the U.S. for its broadcast of the Canadian Country Music Awards.

The Globe and Mail employs four people on the program who are editorial employees that bring specialized graphics, production and international expertise, publisher Phillip Crawley said. “The Globe has made use of this program for many years when we have needed to bring in talent not available in Canada,” Mr. Crawley said. “We are competing for the best people internationally, so for a handful of jobs, this is an appropriate solution.”

In the airline sector, the use of temporary foreign workers has become a divisive topic. CanJet Airlines used the program to bring in about 30 seasonal foreign pilots this winter. It needs them given the seasonality of its business and the large expense it would incur in training Canadian pilots with experience in smaller aircraft, said Stephen Rowe, president of the Nova Scotia-based firm. It’s hard to find Canadians willing to work a 4.5-month stint and who are qualified, he says, so that if the program were scrapped, “we would really have to look at the business to see if it makes sense,” he said. “And if it didn’t make sense, we’d be out of the charter business. And there are 700 jobs that would be gone with it.”

Rival carrier Sunwing made two applications for temporary foreign pilots last fall, for 60 and 59 pilots, respectively, according to the Air Line Pilots Association, which obtained documents relating to those applications through access to information. That touches a nerve with many pilots who have been out of work, such as Steve Zago, a 14-year veteran. He and about 60 other pilots were laid off at Transat A.T. last October. All of them were qualified airline pilots, he said, so they applied to open positions at both Sunwing and CanJet, but did not get a response.

“When we started losing our jobs, and the vast majority of us, myself included, were all experienced airline pilots applying – and none of us got the call,” Mr. Zago said. “It’s upsetting and very frustrating.”

Montreal-based Transat complained to the federal government that rivals such as Sunwing are using seasonal workers at a much lower cost. Transat says its workforce is Canadian, but could be forced to resort to foreign pilots in the future given the competitive pressure. “Of course, we will adapt our model to the new reality. It’s important for us, for business and competitive reasons,” said spokesman Pierre Tessier.

The blistering debate is making Mr. Rowe, at CanJet, rethink his hiring practices. Next month, he said, he will change the qualifications listed on job postings to ensure Canadian pilots with big-jet operator experience are eligible. “It’s becoming a sensitive issue,” he said.

Some companies on the list say they need to move staff between countries. Deloitte Canada, one of several accounting and consulting firms who use the program, moves employees around its network, a practice that also involves Canadian staff working in other countries. “As part of our mobility culture we do encourage our people from Canada and abroad to experience a variety of professional experiences and to share their professional expertise within our global network,” Deloitte spokeswoman Jeannie Tsang said.

Some business owners are ardent defenders of the practice. Paul Vickers, owner of four restaurants and a casino in Calgary, argues the food service business needs reliable people, regardless of where they come from. “You pay them and they show up for work,” he said of temporary foreign workers. He said he has hired small numbers of workers, mostly from the Philippines, to work as chefs and dishwashers and pays them the same or more as his other workers. He has resorted to the program because of what Mr. Vickers calls a “disturbing trend” in hiring local workers who sometimes don’t show up. “You fire him, and he doesn’t even think of it, he just goes onto the next job,” he said.

The agriculture sector has long relied on foreign workers to meet seasonal demands. Church and State Wines, a B.C. company that runs wineries, has used the program for the past four years, hiring between three and five Mexicans to weed, prune and harvest for a six-month period. “It’s hard physical labour and you’re doing it in the heat of summer,” said Lyndell Curry, the winery’s administration manager.

Workers, typically men in their 30s with families in Mexico, have come back for successive seasons. “We have had repeat employees – it’s a six-month term, they can make a lot of money and go back home,” Ms. Curry said. “For us, it’s $10.25 an hour; for them, that allows them to support a family.”

Not all business owners are fans of the program though. Roxanne Jones, manager of the Toddle Inn Day Care in Strathmore, Alta., just east of Calgary, said she is constantly looking for qualified staff. But after bringing in a temporary foreign worker from the U.S. two years ago who did not work out, and footing the associated extra costs of the program, she wouldn’t do it again, “Unless I had to,” Ms. Jones said, adding the program “is just all kinds of paperwork.”

Are you a temporary foreign worker in Canada? The Globe would like to hear from you - e-mail us at community@globeandmail.com

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