The elimination of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program for low-wage jobs will be on the table in 2016, says Employment Minister Jason Kenney, who is not backing down in the face of business criticism that the Conservative government is already going too far.
From the Canadian Meat Council to the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, business groups are speaking out against Ottawa's latest plan to cap the number of low-wage foreign workers and impose higher fees.
(What is the Temporary Foreign Worker Program? Read The Globe's easy explanation)
But in a meeting with The Globe and Mail's editorial board Tuesday, Mr. Kenney insists the warnings from business leaders are exaggerated. He also indicated the government could soon go much further.
Through a phase-in of new caps on low-wage foreign workers and the launch of more detailed labour market surveys, Mr. Kenney indicated that the government will be in a position by 2016 to assess whether it should take the next step.
"At that point [in 2016], I think the government can do a reassessment and look at whether it would be desirable to go to zero right across the country," Mr. Kenney said. "So I'm saying quite publicly that we're leaving our options open. There will be great resistance to that."
The overhaul of the program has been called an "appalling overreaction" by business groups and has the Conservatives suddenly playing defence in the Western stronghold of Alberta, where the changes are expected to hit hard.
All three men vying to become the next Alberta premier, including front-runner Jim Prentice, say Ottawa is unfairly punishing the province and would demand more control over immigration policy to deal with labour shortages, as Quebec has now.
Mr. Kenney also confirmed that further changes to the Live-In Caregiver component of the TFW Program will be announced later this year. The government remains concerned with the caregiver stream even though that part of the TFW Program was left largely untouched Friday when he and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander announced major changes.
As The Globe reported this week, Canadian officials in the Philippines have been warning colleagues for years that the caregiver program was facing abuse and had largely become a "hidden" family reunification program.
As far back as 2009 when he was immigration minister, Mr. Kenney said he recalls meeting in Manila with 70 women who were on their way to Canada via the program and every single one of them planned to work for a relative.
"The biggest problem I see in it is that … to a great deal, it has mutated into an extended family reunification program, which was not its intent," Mr. Kenney said Tuesday. "As best we can tell, a majority of the entrants in that program were actually coming to work for relatives – for family members."
The fact that the caregiver program allows workers to apply for permanent residency for themselves and their family has "clogged" up the immigration system, said Mr. Kenney. The minister would not speculate on whether the government is considering the elimination of this benefit.
"These are issues that Chris Alexander is grappling with and will be making some kind of reform announcement later this year," he said.
Some of the government's critics will have the opportunity to raise their objections directly with Mr. Kenney Wednesday at a one-day policy gathering.
Mr. Kenney is in Toronto this week to play host to the gathering, a "Skills Summit" that he and his department organized. The one-day conference includes a broad spectrum of public-policy experts. University professors, business groups and labour leaders will have an opportunity to debate the broader issues related to Canada's labour market. Senior federal and provincial public servants will also attend.
The list of invited speakers includes people, such as Canadian Chamber of Commerce President Perrin Beatty, who have been critical of the government's foreign worker changes.
The four main topics on the agenda include whether skills shortages exist in Canada, how labour market data could be improved, how to reform educational and vocational training and how to match underrepresented groups like aboriginals and people with disabilities to available jobs.
The policy summit is taking place ahead of a meeting of federal and provincial labour ministers next month that will focus on issues such as the new Canada Job Grant training subsidy.