The Alberta Federation of Labour says nothing short of scrapping the temporary foreign worker program is sufficient to protect the rights of Canadian workers.
President Gil McGowan says temporary foreign workers have been used as pawns by Canadian companies and paid below the median wage.
Federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney announced changes in June to limit the number of foreign workers that large- and medium-sized companies can hire. He also toughened penalties for companies that violate the new rules and promised inspections to uncover abuses.
(What is the temporary foreign worker program? Read The Globe's easy explanation)
"The temporary foreign worker program is a train wreck and should be scrapped. This is not a program that can be tweaked or reformed around the edges," Mr. McGowan said Friday. "As long as this program exists, whether it's tweaked at the margins or not, employers are going to find ways of using temporary foreign workers as pawns to drive down wages and conditions."
Mr. McGowan released documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act that he says show Alberta companies were given the green light to underpay thousands of temporary foreign workers in 2013. The Temporary Foreign Worker Program Manual recommends that employers pay a rate equal to the median wage for other workers.
It notes that it's acceptable to pay higher-skilled temporary workers up to 15 per cent less than the median if the employer can demonstrate that it pays its other workers that same rate. The manual says that, in lower-skilled occupations, the wage can be up to 5 per cent lower.
"What was happening last year is the program was being used by hundreds or perhaps thousands of employers, not only to displace Canadians, but to drive down wages – for both temporary foreign workers and Canadians."
Employment and Social Development Canada says it's important to note that Mr. McGowan is talking about a time period before the government's reforms in June.
Spokesman Jordon Sinclair also points out the wage flexibility provision was eliminated more than a year ago. "Since April 2013, employers are prohibited for hiring temporary foreign workers below the prevailing wage," he said in an e-mail response.
"Further, some of the positions were union positions where temporary foreign workers are required to be paid the same wage as Canadian workers for the same job in the same location, regardless of the prevailing wage."
Mr. McGowan said there were already safeguards in place last year that would have allowed the government to clamp down on businesses abusing the system, but they weren't working.
Mr. Kenney has come under fire from business groups and Western politicians who have complained the crackdown is unduly hurting their provinces, where there is a shortage of skilled workers in some industries.
Mr. McGowan is concerned that Mr. Kenney will bow to public pressure and restore the program to what it was in the past.
"The airwaves have been filled with sob stories from employers and employer groups about how these changes are bad for business and bad for the economy," he said.
"Frankly, yes, we are afraid that the Harper government, which after all is a business-friendly government, is going to cave into these pressures."
Mr. Kenney has made it clear he won't compromise on the core goal of the controversial overhaul to the program: to make sure employers don't use it as a cheap source of labour when they could be hiring unemployed Canadians.