The Liberal government's decision to quietly allow an exemption for seasonal temporary foreign workers is prompting calls from other sectors of the economy that also want restrictions lifted on access to foreign low-skilled labour.
Meat processors, beekeepers and mushroom growers are among the many sectors that employ temporary foreign workers but that likely would not qualify under the recent rule change approved by Ottawa.
The Globe and Mail reported Thursday that, without making a formal announcement, the federal government approved a rule change for this year only that will allow employers in seasonal industries to bring in an unlimited number of temporary foreign workers for up to 180 days.
The move was in direct response to concerns raised by fish processors in Atlantic Canada, where the Liberals swept all 32 seats in last year's election.
It means there will be an exemption for a 10-per-cent cap on how many foreign workers can be employed at a work site.
But many other non-seasonal sectors in other parts of the country that are preparing for the cap, set to take effect July 1, say they want similar treatment.
"It's obviously disappointing," said Dennis Laycraft, executive vice-president of the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, who recently told MPs on the House of Commons finance committee about the serious problems facing processors because of labour shortages.
"We'd like to see an exemption," he said. "It just shows we've got more work to do."
The Liberal government argues the exemption is a temporary move to buy time until more sweeping reforms of the controversial temporary foreign worker program can be approved in the fall.
The former Conservative government had significantly tightened access to the program in 2014, and many employer groups have complained that the changes went too far and are hurting their ability to expand.
Employment Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk has said the government also plans to undo the Conservatives' 2012 changes to employment insurance that made the program harder for repeat users to access.
Conservative MP Jason Kenney, a former employment minister, said the foreign worker and EI reforms introduced by the Tories were sound public policy aimed at encouraging businesses to look harder for Canadian workers, and for Canadians to be encouraged to take available work.
Mr. Kenney said the "most aberrant" part of the foreign worker program was the fact that fish processors in Atlantic Canada were bringing in temporary foreign workers in areas of high unemployment.
"Now, typical of the Liberal Party, they are beholden to corporatist interests and that's why they're making this secret side deal to make it easier to displace Canadian workers with those coming from abroad in regions with double-digit unemployment," he said.
"They want to make it easier to bring in temporary foreign workers and make it easier to qualify for employment insurance to deepen the untenable situation of people collecting EI, where their jobs are being filled with workers from abroad. This is the distillation of stupid economic policy," he said.
Seafood producers and Liberal MPs in Atlantic Canada argue unemployment figures are misleading because so many processing jobs are seasonal and fall at the same time as those in other seasonal industries, creating brief periods of labour shortages that require foreign workers on a temporary basis.
NDP MP Niki Ashton criticized the government's approach to managing the program. "It's just unacceptable to see this kind of improvisation from the government."
John O'Leary, a spokesman for Ms. Mihychuk, responded Thursday by stating there is broad agreement that changes to the temporary foreign worker program are needed.
"The previous Conservative government promised to resolve the issues but never did. And the NDP agrees with us that the program needs to be reviewed and changed," he said in a statement. "Reviewing and changing the program is exactly what we'll do."