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Politics Manitoba’s foreign worker strategy called a model for other provinces

MP Jason Kenney, Minister of Employment and Social Development meets with The Globe and Mail's editorial board in Toronto, Ontario, Tuesday, Jun 24, 2014.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Jay Short is a mild-mannered investigator who favours the corrective power of a phone call to peering around bushes or breaking down doors. He is also at the sharp end of the best system this country has so far devised to target abuse in the temporary foreign worker program.

Since 2009, Mr. Short and his fellow sleuths have investigated more than 600 employers in Manitoba that hire temporary foreign workers. They found nearly half were breaking the law.

Mr. Short leads Manitoba's workplace special investigations unit, a six-person team that inspects businesses that employ temporary foreign workers as well as other employers that pay near the minimum wage. It is the enforcement arm of a strategy that's being called a model for the rest of the country. As the Conservative federal government overhauls the politically vexing TFW program, other provinces may come under pressure to adopt the Manitoba approach.

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

Last week, federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney told The Globe and Mail's editorial board he's urging the other provinces to follow Manitoba's example.

"I've publicly and amongst my ministerial counterparts said I think the Manitoba legislation is something of a model," Mr. Kenney said.

While the federal government is responsible for the TFW program, provinces are responsible for enforcing labour laws. The lack of communication between Ottawa and the provinces has often been cited as a barrier to protecting temporary foreign workers elsewhere in Canada.

Manitoba's system centres on the Worker Recruitment and Protection Act (WRAPA), passed in 2009. Its most important component is also its most basic: Unlike most provinces, Manitoba knows where its temporary foreign workers are working. Businesses must register with the province to get a work permit for a TFW. That allows inspectors to check on their working conditions to make sure they meet employment standards and health and safety rules. It also allows the province to block anyone who breaks those rules from bringing in more workers. Advocates for TFWs complained for years that the system was open to exploitation, because a migrant worker's right to be in Canada depends on a good relationship with the employer. As a result, TFWs are said to be less likely to complain of unfair treatment or unsafe working conditions.

"We know where the workers are and we put resources into going out and making sure those workers are being treated appropriately," Mr. Short said. "We focus on the most vulnerable workers in Manitoba. That includes workers earning near the minimum wage, recent immigrants, young workers and temporary foreign workers."

The legislation is a favourite among public-policy analysts. Reports for the Institute for Research on Public Policy, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Canadian Council for Refugees have all hailed it as the best of its kind in the country.

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Mr. Short has conducted sweeps in several industries that employ TFWs, from seasonal workers on farms to restaurant staff in Northern Manitoba to sushi chefs in Winnipeg. His office can impose $500 penalties for every infraction, up to a maximum fine of $10,000 per workplace, per visit.

Over five years, it has issued 16 fines to companies for violations related to temporary foreign workers. Mr. Short said his office first tries to get the employer to obey the law without having to issue a fine. It usually only takes a phone call, he said. Most infractions are due to an employer not paying overtime properly or making improper deductions from employee wages, he said. And while many people hear the word investigation and imagine a sting or a blitz, it's not so dramatic.

"It's not the TV version of an investigation," Mr. Short said. Most comply with the law "without us having to hide behind the bushes or break down the door. But we are left with a small minority of businesses we do believe are playing the system," he added.

Newfoundland and Labrador is one of the provinces examining the Manitoba model after a private member's motion calling for a registry of TFW employers passed in May. Nova Scotia adopted some of Manitoba's measures last year.

"Other provinces are certainly looking at what we're doing," said Manitoba Labour Minister Erna Braun. "We need to be working together with the federal government to make sure that this program remains successful."

With a report from Renata D'Aliesio

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