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British Columbia Restaurant lobby pushes back against Kenney on temporary foreign workers

A McDonald’s outlet in Victoria is under investigation for possible violations of the federal Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

Canada's restaurant association is pushing back at federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney's suggestion that it may be time to bar the use of temporary foreign workers for fast-food jobs.

Mr. Kenney's musings brought a mixed response from British Columbia and Alberta, where Canadians have allegedly been displaced from jobs in McDonald's in favour of temporary foreign workers, raising questions about the program.

The program was designed to allow Canadian employers to hire foreign workers for jobs for which Canadians were not available. However, critics have said the program takes jobs away from Canadians.

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While B.C.'s Jobs Minister saluted Mr. Kenney's "aggressive" moves to deal with the misuse of the program, Alberta's Labour Minister said it makes no sense to target fast-food restaurants and not other industries.

Mark von Schellwitz, Western Canada vice-president of the Restaurants Canada organization representing 30,000 businesses, said Mr. Kenney may have been reacting to media accounts of abuses in the program with his comments on fast-food restaurants.

"There's certainly a lot of pressure on the minister to make some changes," he said in an interview on Wednesday. "There's obviously some things that are not working 100 per cent in the program. Those things need to be addressed."

But he noted that workers in the temporary foreign workers program account for only about 2 per cent of the 1.1 million people employed in Canada's restaurant sector.

"In some cases, the program gets a bit of a bum rap. I don't think people are looking at the full context of it," he said.

On Tuesday, Mr. Kenney told CBC Radio One in British Columbia it wasn't an "unreasonable question" to ask about limiting the use of the program for fast-food restaurants, given the availability of Canadian workers in most areas.

"I agree that's a very good issue that our officials need to look at. I am skeptical that food-service jobs in urban areas with still relatively high youth unemployment need to use this program," Mr. Kenney told CBC Radio.

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A spokesperson for Mr. Kenney said Wednesday there would be no further comment on the issue at this point.

A single franchisee who owned three Victoria-area McDonald's was previously under scrutiny over using temporary foreign workers instead of locals. Employment and Social Development Canada announced Monday it is looking at allegations that operators in Parksville and Lethbridge abused the program.

Alberta Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk said it was pointless to single out one sector for special TFW policy.

"Instead of picking out one industry and making an assumption there is a problem in this industry, we need to look at what this is a symptom of," he said in an interview, expressing support for Mr. Kenney's plans to tighten the program.

"And then you don't have to worry that today it is the hospitality industry and tomorrow a logging industry and a day after the manufacturing industry. It would take us 30 years to go through all the industries that use foreign workers."

In an e-mail, B.C. Jobs Minister Shirley Bond, responding to a question about Mr. Kenney's fast-food proposal, said Ottawa has taken an "aggressive approach" to quickly deal with employers who misuse the program.

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"The TFW program is currently being reviewed by the federal government and Minister Kenney has said that he expects further changes to the program around low-skill workers," she said.

Ms. Bond said she and her provincial colleagues have told Ottawa that immigration programs need to be tailored to labour-market needs and specialized high-skilled workers.

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