Employers convicted of human trafficking, sexually assaulting an employee or causing the death of an employee will be allowed to access the Temporary Foreign Worker program after Ottawa decided to back away from a proposed ban.
High-profile stories of abuse related to the program prompted the federal government to announce tighter rules last year.
Ottawa released draft regulations in June that proposed to ban employers from using the program if they have at least one conviction from a list of criminal offences.
But the final version of the regulations – which took effect on Dec. 31, 2013 – removed that provision.
An explanation of the change, published Wednesday in the Canada Gazette, states that Ottawa decided its original plans went too far.
"It was determined that the condition that employers must not be convicted or discharged of certain offences under the Criminal Code was too rigid and cumbersome in the proposed form," the government states.
"These provisions have been removed from the final regulatory text."
A spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada said the change was based on feedback from consultations.
"We heard from legal experts that these provisions were redundant and unnecessary as the new package of regulations also included a separate condition on employers to make reasonable efforts to provide a work place free of abuse," wrote Pamela Wong in an e-mail Thursday.
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, says Ottawa's "backtracking" on tougher rules shows the Conservative government was never serious about a crackdown in the first place.
"It's kind of Orwellian what they're doing," he said, noting the announced changes received lots of attention, but the details were quietly released during the holidays.
"They seem to be consciously and deliberately misleading Canadians into believing that they're cracking down on the temporary foreign worker program when in fact the opposite is happening."
The main goal of the new regulations is to provide detail around previously announced changes that will allow federal officials to inspect work sites and enter a business without a warrant.
The government acknowledges these new powers prompted concern from stakeholders, but argues they are similar in scope to inspection powers under the Employment Insurance Act and the Canada Labour Code.
Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said his group did not comment on the language around criminals and he is not aware of any small business owner in the CFIB who raised it as an issue.
"Generally, we haven't raised particular alarm about those kinds of things," he said.
He notes that the CFIB supports efforts to prevent abuse. "It wasn't us."
Mr. Kelly has been highly critical of the government's broader changes to the program, which he said are making the program harder to access for businesses that have a legitimate need for foreign workers.
He said good companies are paying the price for bad publicity about the program triggered by a handful of negative stories.
The RCMP and the federal Department of Public Safety have previously expressed concern about the level of protection provided to foreign workers.
"A major source of criminal opportunity for forced labour is the area of temporary foreign workers," states an October Public Safety request for proposals looking for research on labour trafficking in Canada.
The government document states human trafficking "is a heinous crime, often described as a modern day form of slavery."