Ottawa cracks down on employers who abuse program for foreign workers

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

Alex Maxwell first came to Canada in 2010 and is now on her final foreign worker visa (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

The federal government will enact new regulations this summer to give officials the power to inspect and penalize Canadian employers who misuse the temporary foreign worker program.

The regulations are separate from changes to the foreign-worker program promised in the March budget. The new rules will update an existing enforcement regime that was launched in April, 2011, after a critical 2009 report on the program from the Auditor-General.

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The 2011 changes centred around a Citizenship and Immigration Canada website that promised to publicly list all employers who have been banned from the program for failing to offer foreign workers substantially the same wages, working conditions and employment they originally promised.

More than two years later, however, not a single employer has been listed on the site.

CIC spokesperson Julie Lafortune told The Globe and Mail that the new rules would allow both CIC and Human Resources and Skills Development Canada “to impose conditions on employers, conduct inspections and to impose consequences for non-compliance at any time.” No further details on the type of inspections or penalties were provided.

Ms. Lafortune said the website has likely had some impact because employers would only be identified if they applied again to the program and were rejected. She said the website likely dissuades ineligible employers from attempting a return to the program.

The 2011 rules also block temporary foreign workers from the program for a four-year period if they’ve used the program for four cumulative years.

The push for new regulations comes as the Conservative government faces continuing criticisms that foreigners are taking jobs away from Canadians under the program. Controversy over the program this month forced Human Resources Minister Diane Finley to order an examination as to how the Royal Bank of Canada’s supplier, iGate Corp., successfully applied to the temporary foreign worker program as part of its outsourcing work for the bank.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has expressed concern with the program’s growth, and officials are working to speed up long-promised changes in the upcoming budget bill.

But employers are urging Ottawa not to overreact and point to the many positive aspects to the program, which employs hundreds of thousands of workers in Canada each year. Similarly, foreign workers themselves say government should consider the value of the program.

Alexandra Maxwell is a hockey-playing, 24-year-old foreign worker from the United Kingdom. Ms. Maxwell, who works in public relations for a Toronto telecommunications company, first came to Canada in 2010 and is now on her final foreign worker visa. She has applied for a Canadian Experience Class visa, but isn’t sure whether she will be approved.

Ms. Maxwell said she couldn’t find professional work in England after graduating from Newcastle University, and hopes to one day be a Canadian “hockey mom.”

“I want one of those cool basements that people have in Canada: a sports basement with a DVD wall and the big TV and the red light from Budweiser that goes off at the time of the goal at the hockey game,” she said.

Ms. Maxwell said Canadians should know that foreign workers are paid the same as other workers, can integrate well and would gladly become permanent Canadian residents if they could.

“When I first came here, there were newscasts all over about how Canada needed immigrants,” she said. “Two years later, nope, let’s kick everyone out.”

Mathew Wilson, vice-president of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, said it is hard to comment on the changes until the government provides more detail. “We would support anything that moves to protect workers as long as they were reasonable and didn’t go overboard,” he said.

“It shouldn’t have any impact on good, law-abiding companies.”

Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said the only way to prevent abuse is to impose independent oversight on the program. “Unless there’s actual oversight and inspection, we’ll never be able to make sure that people are properly paid,” he said. “I’m not holding my breath.”

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