Skip to main content

The Liberal cabinet is facing one of its most challenging policy decisions to date as it prepares changes to the controversial temporary foreign worker program.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

A major spike in inspections under the temporary foreign worker program is spurring debate over the effectiveness of these new reviews.

The Globe and Mail reported Monday that federal officials conducted 586 inspections under the program in 2015 and have already held 1,537 as of mid-August. Yet during that time, only two employers – an Ontario farm and a New Brunswick trucking company – have been added to a public blacklist of companies temporarily banned from the program.

Toronto immigration lawyer Stephen Green, who represents large companies that use the program and is past-chair of the citizenship and immigration section of the Canadian Bar Association, said the statistics show that the volume of inspections should be scaled back.

"Based on these stats and from my experience, 99.9 per cent of the employers understand their responsibilities and are maintaining them," he said, recommending that the reviews should be focused on protecting vulnerable, low-skilled workers. "Quite candidly, I think right now there are far too many inspections based on the results that they've seen."

Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan, however, called that an "absurd" interpretation of the inspection figures. "I think it's more a reflection of the weakness of the government's enforcement regime than it is of employers' compliance," he said.

The Liberal cabinet is facing one of its most challenging policy decisions to date as it prepares changes to the controversial temporary foreign worker program. Ministers are hearing a wide range of often contradictory opinions on the merits of the program, which allows employers to bring in foreign workers to fill short-term needs – provided they can prove that no Canadians are available to do the work.

With previously tight labour markets such as Alberta now dealing with a jobless rate that is above the national average, the employment landscape has changed dramatically since 2014, when the then-Conservative government last overhauled the program with new restrictions and increased inspections. The higher fees and tighter restrictions were in response to a handful of high-profile cases of alleged abuse involving employers passing over available Canadians in favour of temporary foreign workers.

Statistics Canada reported this month that the job vacancy rate dropped to 2.1 per cent in the first quarter of this year, down from 2.6 per cent in the first quarter of 2015.

Despite those numbers, a broad range of industries – including meat processors, long-haul truckers and the hospitality sector – are urging the Liberal government to keep the program as a much-needed option to fill specific jobs in certain regions of the country.

Mr. McGowan of the Alberta Federation of Labour took part in a consultation last week in Edmonton with Immigration Minister John McCallum, who recently stated that the 2014 foreign worker reforms went too far and that the Liberals are attempting to find a middle ground. Mr. McGowan said he is troubled by the minister's comments about creating new exemptions from Labour Market Impact Assessment permits, which are meant to ensure employers have exhausted efforts to find Canadian workers.

"Those assessments are the one remaining safeguard designed to make sure that employers aren't using the program to displace Canadians with vulnerable, cheap labour from abroad," he said.

The government's decision to blacklist Obeid Farms, located in southwestern Ontario, marked the first such finding under the seasonal agricultural worker branch of the foreign worker program.

Chris Ramsaroop, a spokesman for Justicia for Migrant Workers, said in an e-mail that the program is "inherently exploitative," and that Ottawa must address the fact that migrant workers are putting their own livelihoods at risk if they complain and their employer is then added to the blacklist.

The other employer that was recently added, New Brunswick's AYR Motor Express, is accused of breaking the rules of the program related to travel costs of foreign workers. Both Obeid Farms and AYR Motor Express reject the government's allegations.

Jean-Marc Picard, executive director of the Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association, declined to comment on the specific case. However, he said there is a genuine need for foreign workers in the sector, and that Ottawa and the provinces could help by classifying truckers as skilled labour and supporting Canadians with the cost of training.

"It hasn't been easy for us to recruit Canadians," Mr. Picard said. "It's been a challenge for many years now, and it's probably going to get worse because the average age [of drivers] is getting up there and we're not seeing an influx of people getting into our industry. It's quite a scary thought."