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Temporary foreign workers package mushrooms in Leamington, Ont., on April 14, 2016.MARK BLINCH/Reuters

The use of a foreign worker program that waives the requirement to look for Canadians first is on the rise, according to a new report that questions whether employers are trying to avoid tougher screening.

The Conference Board of Canada released a detailed look on Thursday at trends in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and the related International Mobility Program, including the preliminary impact of major changes that were introduced in 2014 under the Conservatives.

The report comes as a House of Commons committee is set to release a report this month on recommendations for updating the program. The Liberal government has promised that changes will be announced later this year.

The most recent changes in 2014 split the original foreign worker program in two, maintaining a smaller temporary foreign worker program with tougher rules and added enforcement, while carving out the remaining categories into a new International Mobility Program that allows much-easier access to Canada for temporary foreign workers. The IMP covers a broad range of workers, including recent graduates, working vacations for youth, intracompany transfers and workers who arrive under free-trade agreements.

The IMP applies primarily to higher-skilled workers and the smaller TFWP is aimed at low-skilled work, but there are exceptions in both programs.

The trend lines of these two categories are now moving in different directions. The use of the traditional foreign worker program, with its requirements to seek out available Canadians, has essentially been flat from 2010 to 2014, while the use of the IMP has been on a steady climb – nearly tripling from 2004 to 2014 to 194,332 permits. Both streams had a combined 361,051 permits in 2014, a 64-per-cent increase from 2004.

"It seems plausible that many employers seeking lower-skilled workers (and to some degree high-skill and other streams as well) could be obtaining them via the IMP and international student streams rather than the TFWP," the report states.

The report said preliminary data for 2015 suggest a sharp decline in foreign worker permits, particularly in lower-skilled categories. The authors suggest that this is likely due to economic factors and the 2014 changes.

When the government split the program in two in 2014, it also updated the program's historical data to reflect the new categories. However, even prior to 2014, the program operated in a similar way. It included some categories where employers needed to qualify for a labour market permit that confirmed attempts to hire Canadians had been exhausted. Other categories – which became part of the IMP – have always been exempt from that screening process, although it can still be beneficial to obtain a labour market permit under the IMP.

Much of the public scrutiny of the temporary foreign worker program has focused on positions that are subject to labour market screening. However, the authors of the Conference Board report – Kareem El-Assal and Arthur Sweetman – warn that there is a lack of information about the large number of positions where that screening is waived.

Calgary-based immigration lawyer Mark Holthe said employers would prefer to use the IMP and avoid that screening, but there are few opportunities to do that in low-skilled streams.

"The [labour market screening] process is a miserable nightmare and anyone in their right mind would try to find some other option, but at times, it's still the only option," he said. "I don't think it's just because of the difficulties of the temporary foreign worker program that the IMP is increasing, but I'm sure it's a factor."

Mr. Holthe said the public should not be concerned with growth in the IMP because it primarily involves high-skilled positions that are good for the economy.

Citizenship and Immigration spokesman Rémi Larivière said any suggestion that temporary workers are moving from one program to the other is inaccurate.

"The largest decline in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program is in the number of temporary workers performing lower-skilled work in Canada. However, these types of workers would generally not be eligible for any of the streams of the International Mobility Program," he said in a statement.

In an interview, Mr. El-Assal said a lack of public data makes it hard to conclude definitely that employers are trying to get around the more restrictive foreign worker rules. He pointed to the results of a recent Globe and Mail/Nanos survey that showed strong skepticism of the program as a sign that the government's upcoming reforms must address the this perception.

"Canadian workers and the Canadian public in general, they've lost confidence," he said. "They're not trusting of the program and for Canadians to become more trusting, confidence has to be restored that checks and balances are in place."

Part of the IMP category involves workers who can come freely to Canada under international trade agreements. The authors note that this category could grow substantially under free-trade agreements that Canada is negotiating with the European Union and 11 other Pacific Rim nations.

The report notes that the provisions of the Trans-Pacific Partnership have the potential of dramatically increasing the trade in services "and, at the same time, appreciably increase flows of temporary workers in many directions."

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