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Temporary foreign worker David Beattie, left, from Scotland and Thomas Sutton, from England, take a break from working on the construction of a new police station in Edmonton. In Alberta's stretched labour market, some employers have had to turn to overseas labour.

Jason Franson/The Globe and Mail

The Conservative government's plan to have warrantless inspections of workplaces that have temporary foreign workers seems excessive, in the absence of demonstrated evidence of widespread abuses.

The government says the purpose is twofold: to protect the integrity of the program, which is designed as a last resort when Canadians can't be found to do the jobs; and to protect the foreign workers from exploitation.

There's legitimate concern from economists and the wider public that some employers prefer to hire foreigners, rather than train Canadians for jobs. But the government has already addressed that concern with a strong new rule requiring all employers who hire temporary foreign workers to prepare a plan for eventually replacing them with Canadians. And a previous rule allowing the foreign workers to be paid up to 15 per cent less than Canadians has been scrapped.

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Imagine a busy small business with 20 employees and about the same number of customers inside. Suddenly a federal inspector, or perhaps two or more, shows up for a random inspection. The search-and-seizure powers, and the suddenness, make it feel like a criminal investigation. ("The Stasi is going to be visiting employers," Toronto immigration lawyer Sergio Karas says.) As a general principle, the state should not be rifling through a business's filing cabinets without cause.

The government responds that warrantless inspections are permitted under the Canada Labour Code. But what makes sense in protecting workers against imminent safety risks may not make sense for checking an employer's compliance with promised rates of pay and duties of work. There are milder ways to determine whether companies are living up to their word.

By the government's own description, the program is meant to strengthen the Canadian economy by giving employers a way to fill short-term needs for skills and labour, in the event of a shortage of Canadian labour. But now those employers who do so will be letting themselves in for random inspections and document seizures, for up to six years after their last foreign worker has bid them goodbye. They may wonder if it's worth the bother. The heavy-handedness seems, at first blush, counterproductive.

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