The federal government is setting the stage for a loosening of temporary foreign worker rules after vocal complaints from Canadian employers that recent Conservative changes went too far.
A Liberal-dominated House of Commons committee has completed a report on options for altering the controversial program and will make the recommendations public next month when Parliament resumes.
The report is expected to acknowledge the need for temporary foreign workers in specific sectors and will stress the importance of providing foreign workers with options to become permanent Canadian residents. The number of foreign-worker approvals has been on the decline in recent years in light of a softer jobs market in some regions and tighter rules brought in by the Conservatives after high-profile allegations of abuse in the program.
The report by the human-resources committee was completed in June but wasn't made public in time for the summer recess. The government has said it is waiting on those recommendations before moving ahead later this year with changes to the program. However, Immigration Minister John McCallum tipped the government's hand this week in an interview with The Globe and Mail in China when he said the Liberal government will make it easier for companies to bring in foreign workers.
"We're also going to reduce some of the barriers and the silly rules … in order to give companies freedom to bring in the best and the brightest," said Mr. McCallum. "We'll get rid of many of these [required] labour-market impact assessments which slow things down enormously."
A spokesperson in Mr. McCallum's office said the minister's reference to silly rules relates to some of the restrictions that apply to visiting professors. The spokesperson also noted that the minister has said the government is looking at waiving labour-market impact assessments in certain cases where that would help attract top talent to come to Canada.
"What the minister wants to do is just find a middle ground," said the spokesperson.
A labour-market impact assessment is a government screening process designed to ensure there is a legitimate need for a temporary foreign worker and that no Canadian is available to do the job. The minister said the Conservative changes went too far and the Liberals are trying to strike an "intermediate" position. Government officials stressed Wednesday that no final decisions have been made.
Opposition MPs on the committee said Wednesday that the minister's comments reflect the view of the Liberal majority that worked on the report.
Conservative MP Bob Zimmer, the committee vice-chair, said Mr. McCallum's comments are "absolutely" in line with the conclusions of the yet-to-be-released study.
"The government was wanting to go in one specific direction and wanted the report to back them up," he said. Mr. Zimmer said he agrees with the Liberals that there are some legitimate industry needs for foreign workers, but that requests need to be constantly weighed against economic realities.
"The conditions in our economy simply have changed," he said. "He can't just say broadly that we need them absolutely. We always need to be looking at what our economy is doing."
From Atlantic fish processors to Vancouver-based yoga-wear retailer Lululemon Athletica Inc., committee members got an earful from industry groups complaining that the federal crackdown on the program in recent years was excessive.
"There is a critical talent shortage for key head-office positions," Lululemon officials told MPs in a brief to the committee, pointing to design, product development and digital work as examples of skills shortages in the apparel industry. "The temporary foreign worker program is currently our primary recourse to address structural labour-market needs, yet the program is bureaucratic, sluggish and ill-equipped to meet the needs of high-skill, high-speed, globally competitive sectors."
The Conservative government announced an overhaul of the program in June, 2014, after a series of allegations that it was being abused by employers. Some of the more high-profile cases involved B.C.'s HD Mining, which brought in more than 200 foreign workers from China even though Canadians had applied. Three Victoria McDonald's restaurants were also placed on a federal blacklist for allegedly hiring foreign workers over available Canadians.
The number of temporary foreign worker positions approved by Ottawa has dropped from about 200,000 in 2012 to 90,211 in 2015. Of those, 53,000 were in primary agriculture, 22,000 were in high-wage positions and 15,000 were for low-wage jobs.
A separate international mobility program – which was carved out of the foreign-worker program as part of the changes – approved 180,000 work permits in 2015. That category includes foreign students and inter-company transfers.
The Conservative modifications included a change that was scheduled to take effect on July 1, 2016 that would have placed a 10-per-cent cap on the number of temporary foreign workers at any one location. The government agreed to suspend that change for one year in response to industry concerns.
NDP MP Niki Ashton said that move, when combined with Mr. McCallum's comments, suggests that the government is preparing to favour the concerns of employers at the expense of concerns about the rights of foreign workers and the opportunities for Canadians to land those positions.
"Canadians should be troubled by this enthusiasm for eliminating the labour-market opinion and encouraging temporary foreign workers rather than immigrants," she said.