The number of temporary foreign workers in Canada's hotel and restaurant sector has exploded under the Conservative government as the latest figures show the industry is the biggest user of the controversial federal program.
Recent allegations of abuse in the program – some involving three McDonald's franchises in Victoria and others tied to a pizza place in a Weyburn, Sask., hotel – have federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney on the defensive and vowing to crack down on offenders. The minister is also musing about new restrictions that could make it harder for fast-food restaurants in urban areas to access the program.
Mr. Kenney's spokeswoman Alexandra Fortier told The Globe on Tuesday the minister is planning to announce further changes to the program "in due course" that will go beyond new penalties included in the government's latest budget bill.
According to data compiled by Mr. Kenney's department, the number of foreign workers in the "accommodation and food services" sector has grown from 4,360 in 2006 to 44,740, an increase of 926 per cent. The actual number of foreign workers in that category is likely higher because the statistic captures only people working under a federal Labour Market Opinion (LMO), a process meant to ensure that no Canadian workers were available.
There are several ways for employers to bring in foreign workers without an LMO, such as through existing trade deals.
More than 200,000 workers were brought in through LMOs in 2012, but data from Citizenship and Immigration show 491,547 temporary foreign workers either entered Canada or were still present in Canada that year.
NDP MP Jinny Sims said the rise is "outrageous" and shows the need for a major review of the program, especially given that youth – who would be obvious candidates for restaurant jobs – face a 13.6-per-cent unemployment rate. Liberal MP John McCallum wrote to the Auditor-General on Tuesday asking for an audit of the program as soon as possible.
Business and government leaders defend the program as a necessary tool to fill regional labour shortages, often pointing to Western Canada, where the expanding resources sector leads to skills shortages across the economy. A 2013 survey of members by the Alberta Hotel and Lodging Association found one in five full-time employees is a temporary foreign worker and their numbers in the industry have increased 25 per cent since 2011. The survey found kitchen staff, food and beverage servers, front-desk agents and housekeeping room attendants are among the hardest occupations to fill.
Dave Kaiser, the president of the association, said he's concerned by the current negative attention on the program given that it is especially needed in small communities.
"There's unemployed youth in major metro areas, but the jobs we're needing to fill are in places like Peace River and Edson," he said. "How do you get those folks to move out to those areas?"
Mr. Kaiser said the association's survey shows the foreign workers are paid well and do not lead to lower wages generally.
But anecdotal reports from workers affected by the program claim some employers are abusing the system, squeezing out Canadians in favour of more compliant foreign workers who depend on their boss to remain in Canada.
Mr. Kenney hinted last week that he may be open to barring the urban fast-food sector from the program, comments that did not sit well with the industry.
"I agree that's a very good issue that our officials need to look at," Mr. Kenney said last week during an interview with CBC Radio One's B.C. station. "I am skeptical that food-service jobs in urban areas with still relatively high unemployment need to use this program."