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Employment Minister Jason Kenney

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Business groups representing employers of entry-level workers are forming a coalition to push back against the Conservative government's tight restrictions on the use of temporary foreign workers.

Nearly six months after Ottawa announced sweeping changes to the controversial foreign worker program, four employer groups have written a joint letter to the government calling for some of the provisions to be softened.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business, Restaurants Canada, the Retail Council of Canada and the Tourism Industry of Canada sent the letter Monday outlining their concerns.

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"We know that some may feel employers are using the [program] as a preference, but we assure you that our members are using the program due to a lack of other options," states the letter to Employment Minister Jason Kenney and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander.

(What is the temporary foreign worker program? Read The Globe's easy explanation)

The groups insist that no firm would go through the expense, paperwork and delays associated with the program "if there was a reliable, locally available alternative to fill the position."

Employers of low-skilled, entry-level positions were hardest hit by the changes.

The accommodation, food services and retail-trade sectors were essentially barred from the program unless they operate in an area where unemployment is below 6 per cent.

The employer coalition wants that 6-per-cent rule reconsidered. They also want the government to reconsider a new rule that caps and gradually lowers the percentage of low-wage temporary foreign workers at each work site from 30 per cent to 10 per cent by July 1, 2016.

Dan Kelly, the president of the CFIB, said another major irritant is the fact that the new $1,000 application fee is non-refundable, meaning employers don't get their money back in the likely scenario that their application is turned down.

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"Reason has gone out of this debate," he said. "It is, sadly, purely emotion and whipped up by organized labour."

To date, Mr. Kelly said the biggest impact of the changes is that many businesses have suspended expansion plans. However, as existing worker permits expire, businesses will face harder decisions in the coming months.

"We're just now at the point where a lot of the temporary foreign workers that were in Canada are soon to be sent packing and that is probably the most pressing issue that we're hearing right now," he said.

A series of controversies related to the program involving allegations of abuse – as well as a broader debate over the extent of labour shortages in Canada – put the Conservative government on the defensive. Having acted in June to respond to critics, the government is showing no interest in reopening the debate.

"We believe that employers must do more to hire underrepresented Canadians like youth, aboriginal people, and Canadians with disabilities, rather than bring in temporary foreign workers to fill jobs," Alexandra Fortier, a spokesperson for Mr. Kenney, said in an e-mail.

Susie Grynol, the Retail Council of Canada's vice-president of federal government relations, said there should be a lesson in the fact that some businesses are still using the program.

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"If the government has achieved what it would like, which is a drop in the applications, and businesses are nevertheless choosing to access the program despite the fact that it's more expensive, it's more onerous, it's less useful et cetera, then they're obviously using it because it's necessary," she said. "The government should soften some of the harshest edges of that program to avoid some unintended consequences."

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