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Top Filipino diplomat defends Ottawa’s foreign-worker program

Ruthcelie Diala, shown in Whitehorse on Nov. 27, 2013, came to the Yukon capital from the Philippines in 2009 under the Yukon Nominee Program, which fast-tracks foreign workers for permanent residency and citizenship.

IAN STEWART/The Globe and Mail

The top Filipino diplomat in Canada is defending the temporary foreign worker program as an overall success after the Conservative government's surprise decision to block restaurants from the program left many migrant workers in limbo.

The Philippines is consistently the No. 1 source country in terms of approved Labour Market Opinions, a screening process meant to ensure no Canadian is available to do the work. In 2012, the number of successful applications to bring in workers from the Philippines was twice as high as second-place Mexico.

Eric Tamayo, the consul-general of the the Philippines embassy in Ottawa, said the federal government will need to give some thought to the fate of the workers in Canada who would normally be looking for their next restaurant job but are now blocked from that sector due to last week's moratorium.

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Employment Minister Jason Kenney's decision to suspend the restaurant sector's access to new temporary foreign workers was triggered in part over criticism that McDonald's franchises in Victoria were bringing in temporary Filipino workers while Canadians said they were being denied work.

"The understanding among many Filipinos taking part in the program is they have come to Canada to take on the work that not many people in Canada nowadays would like to do," said Mr. Tamayo. "We've had the occasion to talk with some of the workers on the ground and they're happy with having been given the opportunity to work in Canada … Certainly the last thing on their mind would be if they are taking the job of anybody else."

Mr. Tamayo said it was too early to say how temporary Filipino workers are reacting to the moratorium. However an advocacy group for migrant workers said there is fear the controversy is contributing to xenophobia.

Chris Ramsaroop, a spokesperson for Justicia for Migrant Workers, said some recent negative public sentiment toward foreign workers in concerning. He stressed the debate should focus on policy rather than pitting workers against each other. Some foreign workers who were in the process of lining up their next restaurant job in Canada are now out of work and in limbo.

"They're just terrified right now. They don't know what to do with themselves," he said in references to workers he speaks with but who do not want to talk to the media. "People need answers now."

Generally, workers have 90 days after their temporary job ends to find another job and send an application to the federal government. Failing that, they must return to their home country.

The fate of the program is set to dominate debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday, as the NDP is moving a motion for a full-day debate. The NDP opposition day will be focused on calling for a broader moratorium that includes all lower-skilled occupations and for the House to request an urgent audit of the program by the Auditor-General. The motion will be put to a vote Tuesday or Wednesday.

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Mr. Kenney said the Auditor-General is free to investigate whatever he deems appropriate.

"In terms of the program, if and when there are abuses, we act clearly and quickly," he said, promising more changes soon. "We are about to come out with another phase of further reforms to ensure that Canadians always and everywhere get the first crack at available jobs, and that that program is only used as a limited and last resort by employers."

The minister also accused the NDP of hypocrisy given that some NDP MPs have intervened in support of businesses that want temporary foreign workers. But NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said it was Mr. Kenney, a former immigration minister, who has been in charge of the program for years.

"What's astonishing today is to hear Jason Kenney stand up and say there's all sorts of problems with the management of the temporary foreign worker program," said Mr. Mulcair. "He's been the guy managing it for the past six years ... We're going to continue to put pressure on the government so that they change this program."

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