Canadian companies that want to bring in highly skilled foreign workers temporarily will be able to do so faster and pay them less under new federal immigration rules aimed at addressing the country's persistent labour shortages.
In areas of the country that are booming economically – particularly Alberta – companies are complaining about the lack of skilled workers, a problem that Ottawa has identified as one of Canada's biggest policy challenges. Of 190,000 temporary foreign workers who entered Canada last year, 25,500 went to Alberta. Businesses that use the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which allows employers to bring in workers if they can prove they have advertised the jobs locally without success, say they are relieved that it will become less cumbersome, but critics worry the changes will lead to lower wages across the country.
Under the new rules, Ottawa promises to respond to employer requests for highly skilled workers within 10 days, instead of the 12 to 14 weeks it currently takes to get a Labour Market Opinion – a government approval that's one major step in bringing a worker into Canada.
Also, previous rules required foreign workers to receive the "average wage" paid to Canadian workers in the same region, but the new rules will allow employers to pay up to 15 per cent less than that average wage. In an interview, Human Resources Minster Diane Finley said Canada's skills shortages mean there will be more temporary foreign workers coming to Canada regardless of the latest changes.
"[Wednesday]s announcement is going to make the system more efficient, it's going to be more effective for the employers and it's going to add protection to temporary foreign workers who are brought in while still ensuring Canadians get first crack at the jobs," she said.
While the new national rules will apply only to high-skilled jobs at first, the government says it could be expanded to include other occupations. Ms. Finley made the announcement in the small, industrial town of Nisku, in central Alberta, which produces infrastructure for energy producers. Labour-starved Alberta relies on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program as a key pillar of its fast-growing economy.
But although Alberta applauded the changes, the province is hoping for further changes to Canada's immigration laws, including an increase in how many people Alberta can nominate for permanent residency under the provincial nominee program – or no cap at all. Currently, it can put forward 5,000 people per year.
"We'd like to see the cap removed, but if we could get it up to 10,000 that would be very helpful," said Alberta Human Services Minister Dave Hancock, whose department includes the employment and immigration file.
"The Temporary Foreign Worker Program is not the be-all and end-all. It is a way to get workers when we need them," Mr. Hancock said, but residency is preferred. "The permanence is an important factor. … Ideally, you want somebody who will actually come to stay."
Alberta's provincial government has also complained that a four-year cap on how long a worker can stay short-changes Canadian companies, which help develop employees' skills (and, in some cases, fluency in English or French), then are forced to kick them out. Other countries are benefiting from Canada's training, the Alberta government has argued.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business's Alberta director, Richard Truscott, applauded the changes and said the TFW program is a "godsend" for some businesses. He added that more changes are needed to cut red tape and improve the overall immigration system. "This is one first step in that direction, but there are many more steps to go," he said, noting the labour shortage is "going to get a lot worse before it gets better."
Immigration consultant Peter Veress, the president of Calgary-based Vermax Group, also praised the move, saying a 10-day turnaround would be a big improvement. He said the jobs are typically ones that Canadians don't want. "I don't think we can fix the [labour shortage]problem domestically," he said.
But Nancy Furlong, secretary treasurer of the Alberta Federation of Labour, says it is inappropriate for the federal government to bring in policies that will force Canadians across the country to compete for less pay. Ms. Furlong said the change will make it less likely that Canadians across the country will move to areas like Alberta, where there are skills shortages, because employers will opt for the foreign workers who can be paid less.
"They're trying to drive down salaries and wages and frankly I don't think that's the job of our government to take one side, that being business, and find them ways of making money off the backs of citizens of the country by allowing them to drive wages down. I just think that's just wrong, totally wrong."