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Politics Ottawa to announce changes to foreign-worker program Friday

Minister of Employment and Minister of Multiculturalism Jason Kenney answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Wednesday, June 11, 2014.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Employment Minister Jason Kenney and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander will announce long-promised reforms to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program on Friday.

Mr. Kenney has been promising major reforms to the program and has been consulting with business and labour groups – as well as Conservative MPs – in recent weeks as he finalized the details.

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

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The department of Employment and Social Development Canada is planning a two-hour closed-door briefing prior to a 1:30 p.m. news conference that will officially announce the changes.

The announcement comes as Parliament breaks this week for the summer recess.

Two main sources of controversy related to the program have left the government on the defensive for months. A series of allegations of abuse – including at three McDonald's franchises in Victoria – forced the government to start publishing a blacklist of employers who are banned from the program for allegedly breaking the rules.

Secondly, economists have criticized the government over the quality of labour market data, which critics say is not detailed enough to produce evidence that would support the government's policy plans.

Mr. Kenney has already announced this month that the government will spend $15-million a year to fund two major new surveys of employers that would obtain the detailed information on job shortages that is currently lacking.

The minister's recent comments, as well as his decision in April to impose a temporary moratorium on the food services sector's access to the program, suggest the government wants to tighten access to the program for low-wage jobs.

Employer groups insist there are very real labour shortages in specific regions and sectors and have been urging federal Conservatives not to overreact in responding to the controversy. Labour organizations accuse the government of allowing employers to bring in cheap foreign labour as a way of suppressing wage growth across the economy.

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The challenge for the government is that the Canadian economy is running at very different speeds. The Bank of Montreal recently described the Alberta economy as being "in a league of its own" and Statistics Canada confirmed that job vacancies are highest in Alberta. Statistics Canada also noted that the accommodation and food services sector had the highest job vacancy rate in the country. That finding for the first quarter of 2014 covered the period prior to Mr. Kenney's announcement in April to impose a moratorium blocking the sector's access to the TFW program in response to allegations of abuse.

Restaurants and hotels – particularly in Alberta but also across the country – have been raising alarm about the impact of the April moratorium.

The number of temporary foreign workers present as of Dec. 1 of each year has grown 235 per cent in a decade, from 101,078 in 2002 to 338,221. Another measurement, which adds up the total entries in a year plus those who are still present in the country, shows there were 491,547 temporary foreign workers in Canada in 2012.

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