Canada's largest business group says it's disturbed by new warrantless search and seizure powers the Harper government has given federal officials to inspect thousands of workplaces as part of a tightening of the controversial foreign temporary worker program.
Changes to immigration and refugee protection regulations, published just days ago, give Human Resources and Skills Development Canada officials or Citizenship and Immigration Canada officers the right to walk in on businesses as part of a random audit or because they suspect fraud.
Perrin Beatty, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said this was the first he'd heard of this new authority. "I'm obviously very concerned about it. These seem to be very sweeping powers to be giving to the authorities without the sort of checks and balances that are necessary to ensure they are not abused," Mr. Beatty said. "We certainly support enhancing the ability of the government to identify people who are genuinely fraudulent. The question is: Should a public servant at a desk somewhere have the capacity to decide capriciously to simply go into a business without a warrant … and in some cases to seize documents, without having to go to a court to seek authorization and to demonstrate there is probable cause?"
But not all companies share Mr. Beatty's concern. At Bombardier Inc.'s aerospace division in Montreal, which uses about 400 temporary foreign workers out of a work force of 20,800, "audits actually a very normal part of any process with any kind of government [program]," said spokeswoman Haley Dunne. "We are comfortable with them and quite open to them," she said.
Upon entering a property, officials will have wide powers of investigation. They will be able to "examine anything on the premises," question employers and staff, request documents, use photocopiers to copy records, and take photographs or make video and audio recordings. They can also take records with them.
The Canadian Chamber of Commerce represents 450 local chambers across the country that in turn represent 200,000 businesses.
The new rules bring businesses relying on temporary foreign workers under similar inspection regimes to ones used in regulated industries where health or environmental audits are conducted. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects people and businesses from unreasonable search and seizure, which generally means the government cannot enter private property without a warrant. But courts often allow warrantless inspections of regulated businesses, lawyers say.
Jay Myers, president of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, says his concern is rather how frequently HRSDC and immigration inspectors will be conducting random audits of businesses.
"If inspectors are going out to do a lot of random audits and inspections, it's really going to be a cost for companies that are otherwise obeying the rules of the program," Mr. Myers said.
"We really need to know more about what the plans are."
He said he hopes this doesn't represent an effort by Ottawa to further discourage use of the temporary foreign worker program.
"If this is being used as a method to get employers not to use the temporary foreign workers program and it becomes an overly costly compliance requirement for companies, then we really do have a problem."
Hundreds of thousands of foreign workers came to Canada in 2011 – more than double the levels of a decade ago. They are being used to fill positions in fields from fast-food to information technology to agriculture.
The new regulations come just months after the Conservative government reversed course on the temporary foreign worker program with measures to make it tougher, and less economically attractive, to import short-term labour.
Francis McGuire, CEO of Major Drilling Group International Inc. of Moncton, said he feels warrantless inspections may be necessary, because of the possibility of abuses in the temporary foreign worker program.
"It is extremely important for labour inspectors to pop in and make sure that people aren't being exploited," he said.
While there is legitimate concern that government officials may get "bureaucratic and sticky," there are instances where random audits are necessary, said Mr. McGuire, whose company has used temporary foreign workers in the past. "You hate to think that any Canadian employer might be exploiting people, but it does happen. … and it has got to be policed. They have to come in and take a look, and they can't be announced."
Sergio Karas, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer, said warrantless search and seizures are a misstep. "I'm outraged and so are my corporate clients," Mr. Karas said. "What are they going to do [next]? Install listening devices now in businesses?"
Better options would have been limiting smaller businesses from accessing the program, reducing the number of years a foreign worker can stay in Canada, and ensuring temporary foreign workers pay payroll taxes while they're working in Canada, he said.
"It's true the system has been abused, but you need to understand who's been abusing the system. The people who have been abusing the labour market opinions are the mom-and-pop shops, typically in the construction industry, or the small employers who want to bring their brother-in-law from India or from Portugal."