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Ottawa approved thousands of foreign worker requests at minimum wage, data reveal

Minister of Employment and Social Development Jason Kenney responds during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Wednesday, May 14, 2014.

The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld

The federal government approved thousands of requests to bring in temporary foreign workers at minimum wage in recent years, a practice that undermines claims from government and employers that there are serious labour shortages and that all efforts have been taken to hire Canadians.

The revelations in newly released data come as the Conservative government is weighing major policy reforms – including a new "wage floor" – in response to criticism that employers are relying on the temporary foreign worker program as a way to avoid raising wages.

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

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Using Access to Information legislation, the Alberta Federation of Labour obtained extensive statistics about the program and provided its findings to The Globe and Mail. The union sought and obtained information on the number of Labour Market Opinions approved by Employment and Social Development Canada that were for minimum wage jobs. An LMO is a screening process meant to ensure employers have exhausted efforts to hire Canadians before turning to the program.

According to the documents, at least 15,006 minimum-wage positions were approved between March 31, 2010, and Feb. 10, 2014. (Only the numbers for Ontario go back as far as 2010, which means the actual totals for the period would likely be higher.)

Gil McGowan, the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said the numbers undermine Ottawa's claims about serious labour shortages.

"There should be very, very few jobs at minimum wage, but from these documents, they've just approved thousands in what is supposed to be a hot labour market," he said.

Under the program, temporary foreign workers must be paid the median prevailing hourly wage for that occupation in that geographic area. A median wage means half the workers in that occupation in that area make less and half make more.

Researchers with the AFL compared each minimum-wage job with the current prevailing wage. That research found that about 97 per cent of the approved minimum-wage positions were below what federal rules say they should currently be paid.

The government argues the approvals complied with the prevailing wages at the time. In particular, the vast majority of the minimum-wage approvals are for the Live-in Caregiver Program, which up until 2012 had its own rules that simply required employers to pay the provincial minimum wage. Since 2012, the government has been setting an inflation-adjusted prevailing wage for caregivers. The government says that in cases in which an LMO is approved for caregivers or agricultural workers – which is the second most-common category of approved minimum-wage jobs – employers must pay the higher prevailing wage if it goes up after the LMO is approved.

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The union also requested an updated list of all businesses in Canada that employ temporary foreign workers. However, the department's most recent release blacks out a large number of company names. The department said it needs the consent of unincorporated businesses to release those names.

Employment Minister Jason Kenney recently gave employer and labour groups a heads-up on some of the policy moves the government is considering.

A note distributed in a private briefing and obtained by The Globe lists a series of "next steps," including that "employers consider offering higher wages when recruiting before hiring foreign workers."

One option would be to set a "wage floor" for temporary foreign workers that would be above the minimum wage and likely above the median prevailing wage. The government's motivation would be to make the program less appealing for employers in low-wage, low-skilled sectors. Such a move would also represent an effort to encourage employers to try attracting Canadians through higher wages before turning to the program.

Employer groups have already given the idea a cool response. If enacted, it would likely create new tensions by explicitly requiring temporary foreign workers to work alongside Canadians who are paid less.

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