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Union calls for review of temporary foreign workers program

The union’s concerns include the effect of the temporary foreign worker program on the prevailing wage and how it is enforced in the construction industry in Western Canada.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

A union is calling for a review of the impact the temporary foreign worker program has had on the construction industry in Western Canada, saying a federal government report ignored the issue.

The Western Canadian arm of the Labourers' International Union of North America says a report released last month by a House of Commons committee fell short, and failed even to acknowledge a 123-page submission from the union.

Mark Olsen, the manager of the union's regional office, said on Monday that concerns include the effect of the temporary foreign worker program on the prevailing wage and how it is enforced.

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Read more: House of Commons committee urges reform for temporary foreign-worker program

"Companies should have to pay whatever the going rate is for construction in a given area, because if they're allowed to advertise at a much lower rate and they're allowed to pay at a much lower rate, then they won't have as many Canadians applying, maybe none," he said in an interview.

"And on top of that, they will be depressing the wage rates of companies that are competing for the same work, and workers that are competing for the same work."

Mr. Olsen said that in some instances, a Canadian worker could be paid significantly more than a temporary foreign worker for the same task, which is discriminatory.

Tom Sigurdson, executive director of the B.C. and Yukon Territory Building and Construction Trades Council, said his organization supports the union's call for a separate review.

Mr. Sigurdson, who will join Mr. Olsen for a news conference on the matter later this week, said "legitimate contractors who are playing fairly ought to be able to access temporary foreign workers in an expedited way when Canadians are not available.

"Contractors who are trying to beat the system and essentially just have a much lower-paid work force, they ought to be penalized from even operating in Canada," he said in an interview.

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Mr. Sigurdson said temporary foreign workers in British Columbia have sometimes been paid less than the minimum wage.

The government committee on the temporary foreign worker program began its review in May and released its report two weeks ago. It recommended, among other things, that the program be amended to make it easier for temporary foreign workers to become permanent residents in Canada. Mr. Olsen said his union supported that recommendation and had called for a pathway to full citizenship.

The committee also recommended the elimination of a rule that ties a foreign worker's permit to a specific employer based on testimony that this can create a power dynamic that leads to abuse.

A statement on Monday from Employment and Social Development Canada did not address the union's call for a separate review.

The statement said the committee heard from about 50 witnesses representing industry associations, academia, labour and migrant-support groups. It said the committee also received 63 written submissions.

"The TFW Program is intended to be used as a last and limited resort when employers are facing short-term skills and labour shortages, and only when no Canadians and permanent residents are available," the statement read.

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"Employers who wish to apply for temporary foreign workers must comply with strict program criteria, including recruitment and advertisement requirements to ensure that Canadians and permanent residents are given the first opportunity at available jobs."

The statement said employers must advertise their positions to Canadians using the prevailing wage.

If no Canadian or permanent resident can be found, the employer must pay the same advertised rate to the temporary foreign worker, the statement read.

It said employers who are non-compliant can face warnings or administrative penalties, or be banned from using the program.

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