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Jobs Employers fear red-tape snarl from foreign worker rule changes

Canada's Immigration Minister Jason Kenney speaks during a news conference in Ottawa April 29, 2013.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

The federal government's changes to its temporary worker program have sparked concern that red tape will lead to missed business opportunities.

The worry among some employers and immigration experts is that delays and difficulties bringing in workers along with higher costs will hamper the ability of firms to fill positions, particularly in areas where workers are hard to find such as remote locations in the Prairies. That in turn will stunt the ability for businesses to grow, which could eventually jeopardize Canadian jobs, they say.

"Simply asking employers to spend more time looking for non-existent workers in Canada before approving their use of temporary foreign workers is not only short-sighted, but could have disastrous economic consequences," said Michael Atkinson, president of the Canadian Construction Association in a release.

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Still, not all employers are hitting the panic button. Some who use temporary foreign workers say the reforms will have little impact on their businesses.

The government reversed course on its expanded temporary worker program on Monday, announcing it will suspend the accelerated labour market opinion, which had sped up the process of bringing in workers, crack down on abuses, add a fee and end the 15-per-cent wage rule, which allowed employers to pay foreign workers less than the average under some circumstances.

The program had been expanded, with nearly half a million foreign workers coming to Canada in 2011, more than double levels of a decade earlier and is now being used in a range of sectors, from restaurants and hotels to factories and banks. Employers say its use is essential to fill positions Canadians can't or won't do, while some economists and labour groups say it has displaced some Canadian workers, hurt wage growth and dampened efforts to train workers.

Some immigration experts are concerned a one-size-fits-all will harm aspects of the program that were working well.

"They should use a scalpel and not a sledge hammer," said Sergio Karas, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer. Employers that were abusing the system should be penalized, and introducing a fee is fair. However, "it's a blunt instrument."

He's particularly concerned about the impact on multinational companies doing work in Canada, who rely on the expertise of foreign workers to do short-term projects. Without the ability to bring in those workers, some may decide it's not worth the hassle of bidding on contracts.

Not all employers who used the program are concerned. Charles Dutil, president of semitrailer manufacturer Manac Inc. in St-Georges, Que. says the changes won't make much difference to his operations.

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The elimination of the measure allowing employers to pay foreign workers up to 15 per cent less than the prevailing wage doesn't change things for him because the 15 welders – mostly from Costa Rica – he employs earn the same pay as permanent workers doing the same work, said Mr. Dutil.

The foreign employees at Manac were hired to work the less desirable shifts on Friday evenings and weekends, he said.

Claude Breton, spokesman for National Bank of Canada said it sees "no impact" because they recruit via provincial agency Montreal International in IT area and pay the foreign people with the skills they can't find here the same as their regular employees. The bank has only hired about 20 over the past 5 years or so.

In Calgary, Howard Lutley, CEO of oil sands developer SilverWillow Energy Corp., said his company does not directly use the foreign worker program, but it is used by the outside construction contractors that fill positions on SilverWillow's projects.

For those contractors, the new rules will likely make recruiting a little more difficult "but I don't think it is a show stopper," Mr. Lutley said.

He said the oil sands industry already works very hard to hire and train Canadians whenever possible, and companies try to hire foreign workers only when there is a short-term skills gap.

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Some professional groups welcomed the reforms. The Air Canada Pilots Association, which has long been worried about the impact of program on workers in its sector, said it applauds the changes.

"The temporary foreign worker program cannot and should not be used by airlines as an ongoing subsidy from government used to gain a commercial advantage over their competitors through the avoidance of training costs," said president Craig Blandford . "These operators must be required to make more extensive efforts to hire Canadians before they bring in foreign-licenced pilots."

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business said it will fight the changes. Smaller businesses could face "devastating consequences" from the government clampdown on the program, said Mr. Kelly.

"Small restaurants and hotels in rural Alberta and Saskatchewan are going to pay the price for problems that are at the large corporate level, and that seems deeply unfair," he said.

He's blunt about the impact stricter rules would bring: hindering the ability of some businesses to operate (especially those in Saskatchewan and Alberta, where worker shortages are most acute) that would ultimately cause some firms to close and axe Canadian jobs.

A survey this month found half of its members in Western Canada have had to ignore new business opportunities because they don't have the staff to take advantage of growth opportunities. He calls it a "short-sighted" and "very disappointing" move.

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By his estimates, it already costs employers between $5,000 and $10,000 to bring in one temporary foreign worker (including return air fare). Rather than raise fees or make hiring a TFW more difficult, he suggests changes to make it easier for a temporary foreign worker to become a permanent resident.

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