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Campbell Clark logo

The opposition wants audits. The government is promising change. But maybe it's a lot easier than they think to fix the biggest problems in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

Tuesday's debate in the House of Commons brought heated rhetoric, with Employment Minister Jason Kenney trying to blame the Liberals for creating the program, and opposition MPs demanding the Auditor-General be called in to probe abuses. The NDP called for a freeze on bringing in lower-skilled workers.

Mr. Kenney has imposed a moratorium on foreign worker permits for food services after he'd already mandated inspections, a tip line, and fines.

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But he hasn't yet proposed the most obvious measures: public transparency and some basic market signals.

While the opposition demanded that Auditor-General Michael Ferguson be called in to examine the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, it's worth looking at what his predecessor, Sheila Fraser, found when she audited the program back in 2009.

For one thing, Ms. Fraser noted that the program was expanding rapidly under the Tories, especially the stream for non-agricultural low-skilled workers. That was driven by employers' demand for temporary workers, but sped by the Conservatives: their 2007 budget injected $150-million into the system to process employers' requests for foreign workers faster.

So when Mr. Kenney says the Liberals created the low-skilled worker program, he was right: but he neglected to mention that it's the Conservatives who expanded a small program to what it is today.

Ms. Fraser found other problems, like the potential for low-skilled, temporary workers to be exploited, and the government's failure to consistently apply the rules.

An employer can ask the government for a labour market opinion saying there's a shortage because they've been unable to hire a Canadian to do a job at the "prevailing" wage. Then they can hire a foreign worker for two years. But Ms. Fraser's report found officials at what is now Employment and Social Development Canada made widely inconsistent and varying decisions when deciding if there was a shortage of cooks or pipe-fitters in Surrey, B.C. or Saint John, N.B.

But it was only later that a series of scandals focused public attention on the program. A Chinese-owned company in B.C. planned to bring in 200 temporary Chinese workers in 2013; a MacDonald's franchisor in Victoria was accused of pushing aside Canadians for lower-paid workers; a Weyburn, Sask., pizzeria was accused of letting go veteran servers for foreign workers.

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Now, Mr. Kenney has ordered a review. To his credit, he stood in the Commons on Tuesday for hours to debate the problems. He admits there are some. He's imposed a serious of measures aimed at policing the program. He's created blacklists for abusers of the program, and said inspectors will find them.

But it's easier to adopt measures to help the program fix itself.

A sunshine rule would be a good start: Publish the details of what jobs are being opened to temporary foreign workers. Vancouver immigration lawyer Richard Kurland argued that if detailed public lists of how many temporary work visas were issued in each occupation in each town or area, then the government wouldn't be facing scandals now. That would encourage groups like unions or social activists to watch the lists – and contest the issuance of permits in fields where Canadians are seeking jobs. Abuses would be reduced.

A wage premium would ensure foreign workers don't bring Canadian wages down. If employers have to pay temporary foreign workers a substantial premium above the median Canadian wage for that occupation, they have an incentive to find or train workers in Canada first. The government could also refuse to provide a permit for any job under a minimum threshold.

A cap on the numbers in each occupation would provide an incentive to the private-sector to train workers for jobs like cooks which require some skills. So would limits on companies continuing to import new batches of temporary workers year after year.

"Make the information public. People will act on it," Mr. Kurland said. "And build in that price mechanism that would allow the market to decide, rather than a bureaucrat."

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There isn't going to be a federal foreign-workers inspection service that can regulate the conditions of tens of thousands of low-skilled workers. Bureaucrats in Ottawa aren't going to be able to make pinpoint judgments on the market for hundreds of occupations in different regions across the country. It's more effective to make a program that generally than police one that doesn't. Transparency is the best start.

Campbell Clark is The Globe's chief political writer in Ottawa.

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