Foreign worker amendments met with concern

Employers worried about ‘cumbersome’ process, labour worried about Canadian workers
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/23/2013

In the fall of 2012, complaints erupted around a decision by HD Mining International in Vancouver to bring 201 temporary foreign workers from China for one of its mines in British Columbia.

Two unions in particular voiced concerns about the apparent failure to hire Canadian workers — though HD Mining said it met or exceeded all requirements — and the Federal Court is currently holding a judicial review of the government’s process to grant the worker permits.

The recent federal budget included proposed changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) that are meant to ensure Canadians are given the first crack at available jobs.

“Canada continues to experience major labour and skill shortages in many regions, and Canadians who are seeking jobs should always be first in line for these opportunities.”

While the government seems to be sending the message employers should not be using the TFWP on a regular basis, it also seems like the announcement had more to do with the B.C. mine situation than any real change, said Jason Foster, academic co-ordinator, industrial relations, at Athabasca University in Alberta, citing as an example the restriction around the identification of non-official languages as job requirements when hiring. (HD Mining mentioned workers should speak Mandarin in its job ads, according to media reports, but the company denied there was any such requirement.)

The problem is the TFWP is employer-driven, with no mechanism to effectively limit how much employers rely on foreign workers as a labour solution, he said.

“We were promised, in the mid-2000s when they first expanded the program, that this was just to deal with short-term labour shortages. Well, that’s not how it’s playing out. There were more temporary foreign workers in Canada last year than ever before in history — 300,000. That’s a lot of workers, so it’s become business as usual as opposed to exceptional problem-solving.”

From Gil McGowan’s perspective, the proposed changes are just more rhetoric that hasn’t protected Canadian jobs thus far.

“The regulations and legislation governing the Temporary Foreign Worker Program have always said Canadians should be offered work first, but the reality on the ground has been something else entirely,” said the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

The TFWP was once meant to bring highly skilled workers into the country, with narrowly prescribed occupations such as engineers and academics, said McGowan.

“Now we’ve got to the point where here in Alberta... of the 72,000 temporary foreign workers here in the province, the majority are actually low-skilled workers working in Tim Hortons and McDonald’s.”

A big problem is the lack of enforcement from the federal government, he said, and if employers are using the program as a first choice rather than a last resort, “that’s not a violation of provincial employment standards legislation or labour legislation, it’s a violation of the federal legislation or regulations related to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.”

But during Alberta’s oil boom in the early 2000s, employers were desperate to find workers, according to Joyce Reynolds, executive vice-president of government affairs at the 30,000-member Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association (CRFA), which is concerned the new measures will make the TFWP more costly, cumbersome and difficult to access.

“The Temporary Foreign Worker Program has been a huge assistance in those geographic areas where there is no other option,” she said. “This is an expensive and an administratively burdensome program for restaurant operators. They would prefer if Canadians were available for these jobs and they only use the programs when they are not able to find Canadians.”

Amped up recruitment efforts

With details forthcoming, the government said it will increase employer recruitment efforts to hire Canadians before they can apply for temporary foreign workers, with a longer, broader reach of advertising.

But if you look at the areas where the restaurant industry is using foreign workers, it’s where there are very low unemployment rates, said Reynolds, and CRFA members are advertising, doing job fairs and reaching out to organizations that represent underrepresented groups such as seniors, veterans and youth.

“This is a program that they use as a last resort when they’re not able to find Canadians,” she said. “If Canadians aren’t applying for the jobs, I don’t know how the employer would be able to, other than demonstrating that ‘Here are the ads, I didn’t get anybody applying for these jobs.’ I don’t know how the government could say, ‘You’re not employing Canadians’ if they’re meeting the requirements of the program.”

Having employers increase advertising efforts will have a negative effect on business, particularly smaller ones with ongoing labour shortages, said Audrey Guth, president of the Diamond Global Recruitment Group in Toronto.

“The extended advertising does not attract more Canadians. It was required in previous years and proved ineffective. The Internet has a wide reach and if an individual is truly looking, they will easily find opportunities. The truth is that there are simply very few qualified candidates looking for positions. This is especially evident in the skilled positions.”

But a few years ago, employers had to advertise positions for at least one month, in multiple forums. And if a Canadian was not chosen for a job, employers had to keep records and explain why, said McGowan.

“Since that time, the rules have been watered down step by step to the point where now, under the Accelerated Labour Market Opinion (ALMO) program, employers only have to post job ads on the federal government’s online job board for seven days. And they don’t have to keep any records of who actually applied — it’s basically an honour system,” he said, adding the government said it would only audit 15 per cent of ALMO applications.

Boosted fees for employers

The federal budget also proposes to introduce user fees for employers applying for temporary foreign workers through the LMO process. But unless processing times and service improves at Service Canada, charging for LMOs will not make a difference, said Guth.

“Employers are willing to spend thousands of dollars on recruitment efforts — it is highly unlikely that additional fees will be a deterrent. If employers were able to find local talent, they would gladly do so.”

The bulk of the costs for employers using temporary foreign workers are contracting with foreign recruiters and dealing with all the processes of getting someone from across the ocean, said Foster.

“It’s not with a small administrative fee being charged by HRSDC, so that I don’t really see as an effective curb on the flow of LMOs.”

Overall, there needs to be a much more radical overhaul of the program, he said.

“We know from international experiences that once you’ve started down a road of lower skilled migrant labour, it’s a very difficult path to turn off. And it’s hard to know whether Canada’s passed that point or not.”

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