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Politics Businesses lobby to salvage foreign worker program

Minister of Employment and Social Development Jason Kenney responds during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 28, 2014.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

With potentially sweeping consequences on the line, big companies are anxiously lobbying the Conservative government in the runup to reforms of the temporary foreign worker program.

The looming announcement from Employment Minister Jason Kenney, which is expected to impose higher fees on employers and measures to encourage them to offer higher wages, has injected tension into the once warm relationship between the Conservatives and Tim Hortons Inc., one of Canada's most iconic brands.

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

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"We are greatly concerned about the serious consequences of the government's approach on small business franchisees in markets with severe labour shortages," Tim Hortons spokesperson Olga Petrycki said in a statement. "This has the very real potential to affect jobs for Canadians if access is further restricted in these markets."

There are currently 83 lobbyist registrations on the issue of temporary foreign workers, up from 73 at the start of the year, according to the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying of Canada. The list includes such big names as Honda Canada Inc., IBM Canada Ltd., Maple Leaf Foods Inc., Microsoft Canada Co., Nexen Inc. and Bank of Nova Scotia.

Filings with the commissioner's office provide a sense of the issues that companies, unions and other organizations are raising with Mr. Kenney and his departmental officials .

Tim Hortons, which contracted Calgary-based Blaise Boehmer on May 15 to lobby on its behalf, is focused on the number of temporary foreign workers permitted entry into Canada, application fee levels and pathways to permanent residency, according to Mr. Boehmer's entry.

A few weeks earlier, Tim Hortons found itself under scrutiny after the CBC reported on claims by temporary foreign workers at a Tim s franchise in Blairmore, Alta., and another in Fernie, B.C., that they were being denied overtime pay.

In response, Tim Hortons announced it was taking over the two franchises and was expanding its auditing process.

McDonald's Restaurants of Canada turned to Tim Powers, a Conservative pundit on radio and TV political shows and a veteran lobbyist with Summa Strategies. When three McDonald's franchises were added to the Conservative government's blacklist during the first week of April, the company hired him.

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There were only two requirements for the work: clarify McDonald's "positioning regarding the Temporary Foreign Worker Program" and arrange meetings for McDonald's to meet with government officials and MPs.

"Companies have been a little bit late to the parade," said Mr. Powers, speaking generally on the role companies have played in the debate over the program. "I think the government and employees perhaps are frustrated that businesses weren't out sooner, explaining why the temporary foreign worker program was important to them … In the world of public opinion, a vacuum is a dangerous thing."

The information technology outsourcing sector – which was at the centre of controversy in 2013 in connection to the use of temporary foreign workers by Royal Bank of Canada – is also among the registered lobbyists.

India's Tata Consultancy Services is urging the government to bring back a program that allowed companies to receive fast-track approvals for foreign IT workers. Another outsourcing firm, iGate Technologies, which was connected to the RBC controversy, is among the firms currently registered to lobby on the temporary foreign worker issue.

Microsoft has five lobbyists, including Geoff Norquay, who worked in the Prime Minister's Office under Brian Mulroney and was director of communications for Stephen Harper when he was leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Norquay is registered to speak with federal officials about the Microsoft Canada Excellence Center in Vancouver, which the company said would create 400 jobs. In the registry, his work is described as having discussions with government officials about the centre to "facilitate entry into Canada of foreign nationals to work in software development on a rotational basis …"

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