The upcoming federal budget will include a new wave of reforms to the temporary foreign worker program as the government pledges to ease entry for high-skilled labour while boosting protections for low-wage workers.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Patty Hajdu, the new Employment Minister, confirmed that the government has approved a package of policy changes that will be released in the budget.
"I'm actually chomping at the bit to get some of that news out, but as you know, the budget will be released shortly and many of our actions are tied to the budget," she said.
The program, which allows employers to bring in temporary workers from abroad, has long been a political headache for the federal government. Specific cases where restaurant or mining jobs have gone to foreign workers when local help was available sparked controversy and led to a major reform in 2014 under the former Conservative government. Some employer groups and foreign workers argued those changes went too far and, in December, the Liberals relaxed some of the measures, including a rule that required foreign workers to leave Canada after four years.
The program was reviewed last year by the House of Commons human-resources committee and MPs made several recommendations in a Sept. 19 report. In some cases, the MPs said the rules – such as requiring employers of high-skilled workers to provide a plan for weaning off of the program – were too onerous. In other cases, particularly related to lower-paid jobs, the committee highlighted allegations of worker abuse and called for stronger government protections.
The government had until this week to respond to the committee's advice. The government's formal reply simply pointed to the changes announced in December and promised that further reforms would be announced in the budget.
While not confirming specifics, Ms. Hajdu said the government wants to speed up the processing of work permits for higher-skilled positions, improve protections for lower-skilled workers and to strike the right "balance" among the various recommendations from users of the program.
The Temporary Foreign Worker Program and the related International Mobility Program are the responsibilities of the federal employment and immigration ministers, both of whom were recently replaced in a January cabinet shuffle. Former employment minister MaryAnn Mihychuk was dropped from cabinet, while former immigration minister John McCallum has been appointed as Canada's ambassador to China.
Ahmed Hussen, a rookie MP from the Toronto riding of York-South Weston, was promoted to cabinet as Immigration Minister.
The former employment minister, Ms. Mihychuk, made headlines last year when she told a private gathering of labour leaders that she looked forward to shutting down the foreign-worker program. She said later that she was "kind of joking."
Ms. Hajdu said she believes there is a place for the program, provided that vulnerable workers are protected.
"I don't share the perspective that it should be shut down. I think it definitely needs to be improved," she said, adding that she heard concerns about the program through her previous role as minister for the status of women. "We actually met with a number of temporary foreign workers who had found themselves in very precarious positions, so I am very seized of the issue."