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Politics Employers say temporary foreign worker figures are not accurate

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Thursday, Sept.25, 2014 .

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

More than 2,500 Canadian employers turned to temporary foreign labourers to fill one-third or more of their work force last year, government documents contend, from fish-processing plants on the East Coast and IT businesses in Ontario to hotels in Alberta – and even a cafeteria on a First Nation with eye-popping unemployment.

The list of employers, produced by the federal Employment Department and released to The Globe and Mail through access-to-information legislation, includes some prominent business players, such as Calgary-based Shaw Cablesystems and PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, State Street Trust Company Canada and the 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games Organizing Committee in Toronto, where the jobless rate was 10 per cent in December, 2013.

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

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But six employers contacted by The Globe on Thursday contended the information is inaccurate, raising questions about the accuracy of some of the data the government used to support its case for sweeping reforms to the temporary foreign worker (TFW) program. The federal list is set to become political fodder in Alberta on Friday, when the Alberta Federation of Labour plans to release a copy that it obtained through a separate information request.

"There are lots of employers using the program very aggressively," said Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan. "A lot of these [TFW] jobs are some of the best in our economy and we shouldn't be cavalier about allowing them to slip through our fingers."

Three of the largest employers included on the list said the figures were not accurate.

Shaw Cablesystems, which was listed as employing 4,354 temporary foreign workers (more than 30 per cent of its work force), said it had provided incorrect figures to Employment and Social Development Canada. The correct figure is 169 TFWs, or one per cent of its work force, the company said in a statement.

Financial-services firm State Street Trust said the figure associated with its Canadian operations does not seem accurate. The company is listed as having 1,244 TFWs, but said it has only 1,250 total employees in Canada, of which less than 4 per cent are foreign workers.

A spokeswoman for PricewaterhouseCoopers, a consulting and professional service firm, said its TFW number "looks quite inaccurate." She couldn't provide specifics, but said the true number is "much less."

Pan Am organizing committee spokeswoman Neala Barton said internal records show the group employed 18 temporary foreign labourers in July, 2013 – 13 per cent of its overall full-time staff of 140 and far fewer than the 167 TFWs reported on the federal government document.

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The organizing committee now has 50 foreign workers on its staff of 424. They were hired after extensive searches were done to find Canadians to fill the positions, Ms. Barton said.

Employers on the government's list have not been named until now. Employment Minister Jason Kenney chastised these business owners in June as he introduced new restrictions on low-wage jobs, capping foreign workers to 10 per cent of a company's work force.

"The purpose of the program is to be a last, limited, temporary resort, not a business model," Mr. Kenney said then.

A federal government report released along with the reforms noted an analysis showed that 2,578 employers relied on TFWs for 30 per cent or more of their labour force last year. Of those employers, 1,123 had foreign workers fill more than half of their staff.

Late Thursday afternoon, The Globe asked the Employment Department about some of the discrepancies the newspaper had found and cited Shaw as an example. A spokesman replied: "We understand that Shaw has confirmed that they provided incorrect information to Employment and Social Development Canada."

The TFW program changes are projected to cut in half the number of low-wage-earning foreign workers in Canada, from 31,099 in 2013 to 16,278 by July, 2016. The reforms also essentially terminate the program for most low-wage jobs in regions with more than 6-per-cent unemployment.

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The federal government has been facing strong push-back from some provincial leaders and employers, who maintain the TFW reforms go too far and will harm companies facing a shortage of Canadian workers. Newly minted Alberta Premier Jim Prentice plans to press Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the issue. A majority of employers on the federal list are based in Alberta.

Alberta Labour Minister Ric McIver noted Alberta has a severe labour crunch. He said business owners are inundating him with concerns about restrictions to the foreign worker program.

"Canada is a big country and sometimes one size does not fit all," Mr. McIver said. "Our goal is to work with our partners in the federal government and look for a program that actually meets the needs of Alberta business, puts Canadians first to get jobs, but doesn't put businesses out of business by denying them absolutely essential labour."

Mr. Kenney doesn't appear to be wavering. In an e-mail Thursday, he noted 110,000 Albertans are looking for work and the changes will affect about 8,000 low-paying jobs currently filled by foreign workers. "There are also still too many people capable of working who are not in the labour force," Mr. Kenney wrote.

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