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Alberta MPs say foreign worker program changes will exacerbate labour shortage

Edmonton MP Brent Rathgeber says he thinks Alberta MPs are hearing about the labour shortage issue from their constituents. Edmonton MP Brent Rathgeber pictured in St. Albert, Alberta, June 10, 2013. Rathgeber quit the federal Conservative caucus last week Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail.

JASON FRANSON/The Globe and Mail

Employment Minister Jason Kenney is under fire from fellow Conservative MPs in Alberta over proposed changes to the temporary foreign worker program that some MPs fear could exacerbate the province's labour shortage.

Mr. Kenney is on the verge of announcing changes to the maligned program, which has been the source of controversy in connection to cases of abuse and questions over whether labour shortages are serious enough to justify the rise in foreign workers.

(What is the Temporary Foreign Worker Program? Read The Globe's easy explanation)

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Details of changes under consideration were shared at a Conservative caucus meeting Wednesday, sources say, and are aimed at reining in the TFW program countrywide.

The briefing, along with earlier ones, has some Alberta MPs fearful that booming areas will be left starved for labour. The MPs say the province's labour situation is dramatically different from the rest of the country, and that any changes can't claw back a stream of foreign labour in areas where unemployment is already low. They're calling for a system that addresses variances by region, allowing more foreign workers in booming areas.

A group of at least four Alberta Conservative MPs are now pressing Mr. Kenney, himself an Alberta MP, for changes to keep foreign workers rolling into the province, one MP said. Mr. Kenney is thought to be facing pressure from the Prime Minister's Office to bring in substantial limits to the program, several sources said.

Critics have warned a clampdown will shutter businesses and ripple into the energy sector, delaying major projects at a time when the oil and gas industry is already saying labour costs are too high. "Companies are seriously looking at this as one factor as to whether they expand or continue to grow," one MP said, adding the concerns are shared by MPs from any riding with low unemployment, not just those in Alberta.

Even if the changes are primarily aimed at lower-wage positions, such as in hotels and restaurants, there is concern it could lead to higher costs generally in Western Canada. BMO Financial Group reported this week that "the Alberta economy is in a league of its own," in reference to the latest employment data, while the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers warned this week that cost pressures are threatening to slow the pace of growth in the oil sands.

The official announcement of TFW program changes, as well as to the way the government collects labour market information, is expected as early as next week, but Conservative sources suggested discussions are still taking place and no final decisions have been made.

Business groups have been providing feedback since Mr. Kenney outlined several potential options during a May 15 closed-door meeting. Afterward, several sources said the changes being floated – including a major hike in the user fee for the program and a minimum "wage floor" for TFWs – would effectively put the program out of reach for low-wage sectors.

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Mr. Kenney was said to be including regional unemployment as a factor in the overhaul, meaning employers in booming areas would have an easier time bringing in TFWs. But the Alberta MPs pushing back believe more needs to be done to keep workers coming into the province.

Alberta MP Brent Rathgeber, who was elected as a Conservative but quit caucus last year, said reaction in the province against limits to the TFW program already imposed by Mr. Kenney has been "loud and swift."

"There are serious, serious problems here and I have no doubt that all of the Alberta MPs, including the Minister of Employment, are hearing about it from their constituents," Mr. Rathgeber said.

Steve Watters, general manager of the Sawridge Inn and Conference Centre in Fort McMurray, Alta., and board chair of the Alberta Hotel & Lodging Association, said he and other members have been warning Alberta MPs that businesses will close if they lose access to the program.

"Most MPs in Alberta understand the situation," he said. "They're our ear to government so we are pleading with them to take our message to the federal government and hopefully the decisions made will reflect the concerns that are out there from everybody."

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