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Report makes case for tightening rules on temporary foreign workers

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.

JASON FRANSON/The Globe and Mail

Sluggish economic growth and persistently high youth unemployment have heightened the debate over whether there should be caps on the number of temporary foreign workers entering the country.

The federal government made some changes to its TFW program this year amid concern over its rapid growth as well as its impact on the economy, employment and wages. The number of temporary foreign workers grew to 213,573 last year, nearly doubling from 2000.

New rules added user fees and required employers to prove they've made greater efforts to hire Canadians before applying for a foreign worker. Yet deeper reforms are necessary to avoid excessive reliance on the program by employers, argues an Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP) paper to be released Thursday. An annual limit on the number of temporary foreign workers admitted should be implemented while further changes are considered, it says. Currently, there are no limits or caps.

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"The growth in the number of temporary foreign workers numbers is a cause for concern. Its timing, which coincides with a period of weakness in the Canadian economy, is especially troubling," says Christopher Worswick, economics professor at Carleton University and the report's author. In addition, he cited concern that temporary workers "may take jobs from young Canadians entering the labour market and lower-skilled Canadians."

Based in Montreal, IRPP draws funding from the federal government, provincial governments and the private sector, according to its website.

Canada's youth jobless rate is 12.9 per cent and has remained high since the recession. The country's overall jobless rate has fallen to 6.9 per cent, near a five-year low, though the pace of monthly hiring has eased to half of last year's rate. Economic activity, meantime, has slowed, prompting a number of economists, and the Bank of Canada, to cut their growth forecasts.

The TFW program has proven popular to employers across the country in recent year, with many arguing that it helps to fill positions that Canadians are unwilling to do. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business has argued that the recent reforms will make it "even more difficult" for small businesses to fill their labour needs.

Yet a "limited, tightly monitored" temporary foreign worker program would be beneficial to the country as a whole, Prof. Worswick says, strengthening the immigration system while still letting employers find highly-skilled workers.

Changes the federal government made to the program this year are a "step in the right direction," he says.

But he'd like to see reforms go further. The federal government should find a way to punish employers who abuse the program and create incentives for those using the program to abide by its rules.

Amid reports that many migrants have been working in substandard or unsafe conditions for below-market pay, he wants to see improved monitoring of working conditions for temporary foreign workers, with oversight co-ordinated between provincial and federal governments.

"We cannot allow a program to continue where abusive employers repeatedly bring TFWs into Canada without incurring consequences for their actions."

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