Tough new regulations aimed at quelling fears that foreigners are snatching jobs from Canadians kicked in on Tuesday, empowering government officials to conduct workplace inspections without warrants and to blacklist employers who break the rules.
The regulations also allow government officials to interview foreign workers about their working conditions and to demand documentation from employers proving they've complied with the federal Temporary Foreign Worker Program.
The feds can conduct their workplace inspections for a period of six years, dated from the first day of employment of a foreign worker. Work permits will be revoked if an employer is discovered to have provided false information that "is having or will have a significant negative effect on the labour market in Canada," the rules stipulate.
It's all apparently designed to reassure Canadians that foreign workers are not swiping their jobs following last spring's furor over laid-off workers at RBC being ordered to train their replacements, including those who came to Canada on temporary work permits.
A B.C. mining company was also in hot water for hiring more than 200 Chinese workers after an ad seeking Mandarin-speakers failed to attract Canadian applicants.
"We are taking action to ensure that Canadians are always first in line for available jobs," Jason Kenney, minister of employment and social development, said in a statement on the new rules, which were first announced in the wake of those controversies.
But Daniel Kelly, head of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, calls the crackdown "the worst decision for business since the Harper government took office in 2006."
"This is absolutely putting politics ahead of policy," Kelly said in an interview Tuesday.
"They know this is bad policy. Minister Kenney knows that in his own riding in Calgary, labour shortages are sky-high. There's virtually no employer in his riding that doesn't have a help-wanted sign on its door."
The government is taking aim a big corporate abusers with its flurry of new rules, Kelly added, while small businesses get caught in the crossfire with a temporary foreign workers program now bogged down in red tape and ballooning fees.
"We have tens of thousands of members across Canada struggling to find workers, particularly in rural communities where there are few young people, and now their access to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program is severely limited because of abuses by large corporate bad apples."
Among the new restrictions is the elimination of the so-called 15 per cent rule, which allowed companies to pay temporary foreign workers 15 per cent less than the going rate for any given position as long as the employer had paid Canadians that lower rate as well.
Ottawa also began charging a $275 fee for companies applying for a TFW permit, and required employers to prove they'd made every effort to fill their openings with Canadians before turning to foreign workers.
Provinces such as Saskatchewan and Alberta have been quietly urging the government for months to ease up on the restrictions. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall even made a face-to-face appeal to Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the issue in November.
Boom provinces say their economies are hungry for the type of skilled workers that aren't readily available in Canada due to a skills shortage that the Canadian Chamber of Commerce calls one of the top barriers to Canadian competitiveness.
Kelly describes it as a "complete myth" that Canadian companies turn to foreign workers because they're cheaper. In fact, he says, the costs of transporting temporary foreign workers to Canada and back to their native countries, as well as providing them with accommodations, means they're more expensive than Canadian employees.
"Businesses are doing it out of desperation for any workers, they're not doing it to pay a buck less an hour," he said.
But Chris Smillie, senior adviser on government relations for the AFL-CIO's Canadian chapter, which represents the country's building trade unions, says the government is moving in the right direction.
"We are hopeful the government will make the important link between use of the TFW program and the Canadian training system — the commitment to train Canadians by industry is still not required in the program," he said Tuesday.
"I think there's an opportunity here to get the training thing right not too far down the road."
Reports of skilled labour shortages spurred Ottawa to dramatically expand Canada's temporary foreign worker program in recent years; the number of workers allowed into the country has increased significantly since 2000.