Just visiting – and working

Controversy abounds over the use of foreign workers

By Jeffrey R. Smith

It seems there’s always some controversy brewing over the use of foreign workers in Canada. There are those who believe they’re stealing jobs from Canadians — and there could be some truth to that in the case of some employers. And there are those who believe foreign workers are being exploited as cheap labour — also with a grain of truth in some circumstances.

This has led to the country’s foreign worker program being placed under some scrutiny.

The federal government had hinted it was going to be taking a harder look at the practices of employers using the program to bring in workers from other countries, though its stance lessened somewhat when it allowed employers to pay foreign workers up to 15 per cent less than the average wage. Some saw this as opening the door to more exploitation of foreign workers.

However, there are some indications employers could face trouble if they’re found to be abusing the program and taking advantage of immigrant workers. The feds have created a blacklist of employers who, if found to be in violation of the foreign worker program, will be banned from using it for two years and their names will be announced publicly. Inspectors can also visit at any time to ensure foreign workers are being treated properly.

However, it seems these measures aren’t deterring some employers from abusing the program. Recently, three McDonald’s restaurants in Victoria were placed on the blacklist for abusing the program. Federal employment minister Jason Kenney also indicated the franchise owner of the three restaurants could face criminal charges if he was found to have lied on the work permit application. McDonald’s quickly moved to distance itself from the franchise owner and looked to take over operation of the three restaurants.

Elsewhere, a restaurant in Ontario and another in Newfoundland and Labrador were also charged with abusing the foreign worker program.

Another measure that has been discussed to help curb the exploitation of foreign workers is the licensing of recruiters. There have been instances of recruiting organizations enticing workers in other countries to come to Canada with promises, only to charge the workers exorbitant amounts for various necessities once the workers have arrived.

The province of Saskatchewan has taken such a step, screening and performing background checks on about 250 recruiters and consultants before issuing licenses to them. Any organization without such a license can’t bring foreign workers to the province legally.

These measures are designed to better control and regulate the process of employers bringing foreign workers to fill labour demand that isn’t being met by the Canadian workforce. But are they enough? The controversy over the RBC’s replacement of several Canadian workers with a contractor who used foreign workers to do the same jobs raised a lot of questions and helped spearhead the increased scrutiny of late. Where does this mean for the foreign worker program? Do changes need to be made to help protect Canadian workers from job loss and foreign workers from exploitation?

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