Did the Harper government repair its Temporary Foreign Worker Program mess, or did it just use sleight of hand to distract voters from what loomed as a political threat for the 2015 election?
In the midst of a tight race where jobs are a top concern, critics say the TFWP fix is proving to be a mirage, and deserves to be a bigger campaign issue.
The TFWP, which began in the 1970s and ballooned under the Tories since 2005, has imported hundreds of thousands of workers. Starting three years ago, Canadians began to realize how ripe for abuse the program had become. Headline after headline rolled in about how easily feds were granting approval to let foreign temps fill Canadian jobs in mining, oil, banking, fast food, software and other sectors.
Organized labour cried foul, but so did many among Harper's loyal supporters, opening a divide in the Conservative base. Big businesses including Tim Hortons, McDonald's and the Royal Bank of Canada were avid users of the program. But many conservatives questioned why the federal government was distorting market forces to drive down Canadian wages and take jobs away from residents.
Harper himself was caught on tape admitting in a closed session for ethnic media that "numerous blatant abuses" of the program had occurred and he'd prefer to see more permanent foreign workers and fewer temporary ones. He seemed to be echoing critics who said the TFWP was being used to take advantage of foreign workers who didn't know their rights, and did not provide a path to citizenship.
'Express entry' and other TFWP workarounds
In 2014 the Harper government brought in reforms designed to quell the criticism.
The changes included limiting language requirements on jobs to English and French, so that employers requiring an unofficial language would not exclude Canadian residents.
The government also introduced tougher scrutiny of applications for businesses wanting to bring in temporary foreign workers.
But despite the changes, BC Federation of Labour president Irene Lanzinger said her organization continues to have "deep concerns" about the program and how the government uses it in a variety of sectors.
"It is our belief that the program is deeply flawed in that it creates a class of workers in B.C. that has no rights and protections," she said.
Critics have pointed out at the same time the Conservative government was cracking down on the program, it was encouraging growth in other programs to bring in foreign workers, some that didn't require Labour Market Impact Assessments (LMIAs).
Employers need LMIAs to prove they made attempts to hire a Canadian worker before applying to bring in a temporary foreign worker.
But there are ways around that now.
In December 2014, Ottawa introduced the express entry program, essentially creating a pool of pre-approved workers wanting to come to Canada from which employers could pick.
As of July, express entry had more than 112,000 completed applications from workers waiting to be chosen.
There is also the International Mobility Program, which deals only in LMIA-exempt jobs. Labour groups say that the IMP has merely opened the floodgates for foreign workers to come to Canada without proper oversight and fewer barriers or ways to measure the legitimacy of the workers coming through it.
Though the numbers of workers coming through the TFWP have dropped since changes were made in 2014, the concern is the workers are now just coming in through the IMP program.
Meanwhile, the government has failed to post promised quarterly data on TFWs, along with the names of companies applying for LMIAs.
NINE FOREIGN TEMP WORKER CONTROVERSIES
How did we get here? Here are nine big stories on the issue since 2012.
1. Blow-up at BC mine
In 2012, news broke that a mining project in B.C. was hiring 2,000 workers from China rather than locals. The plan, which an earlier Tyee article had signalled was likely to happen, would start with an initial 200 Chinese workers.
At the time, the Canadian Labour Congress said 20,000 miners in Canada were looking for work, and good wages and benefits could have attracted them to the project located near Tumbler Ridge.
The company, HD Mining, had placed advertisements stipulating Mandarin language skills as a requirement for the job, a qualification that critics argued was meant to exclude Canadians.
Reacting to the news, the federal government said that it wanted to protect Canadian jobs and promised an investigation.
But when the case hit the federal courts in a challenge from B.C. labour groups, the Conservative government was arguing on the side of the company.
The federal government refused to hand over documents related to the hiring of the workers, but eventually offered to release 12 applications for Labour Market Opinions (Now called Labour Market Impact Assessments) needed for work permits on the condition they not be shown to the public.
Lawyers for the labour groups also asked for the resumes of the Canadian workers who applied for the jobs without success to assess their qualifications.
Under regulations at the time, companies using temporary foreign workers were supposed to hold on to such resumes should federal regulators want to see them, but the Conservative government argued that it couldn't force the company to hand them over.
A judge disagreed, and lawyers for the union threatened to pursue a contempt of court charge against then human resources and skills development minister Diane Finley if the information was not handed over.
One FOI request turned up an email from the Department of Justice, praising the government's legal team for a courtroom victory against the two unions fighting the HD Mining foreign worker permits.
"Interim order denied, so no interim relief, I.E. no stay of the LMOs," wrote the department's director of communications for B.C., Lyse Cantin, in an email. "Well done justice team!!!!"
In the end, a judge ruled the company could still bring in the workers because it broke no rules under the regulations at the time.
The labour groups argued that the victory came because key evidence in the case was ruled inadmissible because it was filed after the case began.
2. Recruiter controversy
Around the same time the HD Mining case picked up momentum in the media, a Tyee investigation found that companies in China were charging workers in that country upwards of CDN $12,500 for jobs in Canadian mines. HD Mining stressed that it did not recruit its miners that way.
The workers were to pay a recruiting company called Canada CIBS Investment and Trade Group about $4,700 up front, and the remainder would be taken from their paycheques in Canada.
Such practices are illegal in B.C. and other provinces.
The company offered Canadian mining jobs at a rate of $25 to $30 per hour, but the recruiter said the wage was between $22 and $25 per hour.
Unions said the actual median wages were well above both, reaching $35 per hour.
The B.C. government launched an investigation into the situation. It found no evidence of the practice, but added that if such recruitment was happening it couldn't do anything to stop it.
Stephen Hunt, the United Steelworkers District Three director, claimed the province shuffled its feet on the investigation.
"We don't think there was any investigation," Hunt said. "If there was, it certainly wasn't thorough."
3. RBC bounces workers
Nearly a year after the HD Mining controversy, workers at Royal Bank of Canada in Toronto discovered that they were training people in India who would eventually replace them.
One worker approached the CBC after learning that he and 45 other workers would be losing their jobs, replaced by workers from overseas.
"There are a lot of angry people," Dave Moreau, one of the fired employees, said. "A lot of those people are in their late 50s or early 60s. They are not quite ready for retirement yet, but it may be very difficult to employ them."
Royal Bank had IT services outsourced to another company, iGATE, who brought the workers over for training. A few were to remain in Canada, but the majority were to be sent back to India to work remotely.
Then immigration minister Jason Kenney stressed the rules were "clear" that such actions were not allowed under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.
Canadian unions threatened to pull billions of dollars out of RBC over the issue.
In the end, the bank announced new policies that would prioritize local workers.
4. Oil patch layoffs
In October 2013, Fort McMurray Today reported that 270 oil workers were laid off from Husky Energy's Sunrise project located 60 kilometres north of the city.
Foreign workers were brought in, and resident workers were told at the end of a weeks-long shift that they need not return to the project.
At the time, Ottawa was experimenting with the Alberta Occupation-Specific Pilot program, which took away many barriers that employers must pass to hire temporary foreign workers.
Shortly after the Fort McMurray layoffs, the Financial Post reported that another 65 ironworkers at Imperial Oil's Kearl oilsands mine in Alberta were laid off and replaced by temporary foreign workers.
Minister Kenney, this time through his press secretary, said the allegations were troubling.
McGowan, now an NDP candidate for Edmonton Centre, said the incident was not an isolated one.
5. Harper blasts program that set record under Tories
In January 2014, Harper held a secret roundtable meeting with ethnic media in Richmond.
An audio recording that surfaced from the event revealed the prime minister admitting that there were serious issues with the program that imported record levels of foreign workers under his government.
"I actually believe that what we need is not more temporary foreign workers, in fact I believe we need less; I believe what we need is more permanent foreign workers," he said. "We are doing a couple of things to encourage that."
Harper also admitted that program had been abused by employers and said that temporary foreign workers have a "right to bargain with their employer."
He had been mostly silent on the program before the audio surfaced.
6. McDonald's controversy
Young people in Victoria weren't lovin' it when a local McDonald's was accused of passing over their resumes and opted instead to hire temporary foreign workers.
A "team leader" at a location took his grievance to the media and claimed the owner of his location, who owned three Victoria-based franchises, was serving up fewer shifts to local workers than to his already hired temporary foreign workers.
The government made a show of investigating the franchises and put them on the black list of those who have abused the program.
Once again, Minister Kenney said that abuse of the temporary foreign worker program wouldn't be tolerated.
But a leaked conference call of McDonald's bigwigs told a different story, with CEO John Betts recalling a conversation with the minister on the issue.
"This has been an attack on our brand. This has been an attack on our system. This is an attack on our people. It's bullshit OK! I used those words when I described my conversation with the minister last week. He gets it," Betts said, according to the CBC.
A follow-up investigation by The Tyee found the owner was initially denied permission to bring in some of the workers, but had that decision reversed and the application fast-tracked with a phone call to Service Canada.
Kenney imposed a moratorium on fast food restaurants using the program on April 24, 2014.
The ban was lifted less than two months later, when the new TFWP regulations were announced.
7. Tim Hortons
In late 2013, workers at a Tim Hortons in Fernie, B.C. came forward alleging abuse at the hands of their employer, Pierre Pelletier.
Two of the accusers were married couple Jonas and Chris Pineda who came to Canada through the TFWP and managed to bring their three children along to keep the family together.
The couple alleged that Pelletier often threatened to send them back to the Philippines and made them kick back overtime pay to him in cash on payday.
After further allegations from other employees surfaced in 2014, the company took over control of the franchises from Pelletier and the RCMP launched an investigation.
The workers' allegations were never proven in court.
The federal government subsequently announced changes to the program in June 2014.
It's not just workers in the Alberta oil patch, fast food joints and B.C. mines who were affected by the program.
In December 2014, six months after the program's overhaul, it came to light that Microsoft would be given an exemption to use mostly foreign workers at its new training facility in Vancouver.
Federal and provincial governments initially praised the initiative, boasting that it would create 400 jobs.
But praise soon turned to public outrage when it was discovered all but 20 of those jobs would go to foreign workers, as the CBC reported.
Documents obtain via freedom of information showed that Ottawa knew about the plans all along, but Citizenship and Immigration Canada said that information was out of date and that "most" of the jobs would go to locals.
Soon after, Microsoft said it had hired 79 Canadians but made no promises that any more jobs would go to locals, adding that it would be searching the planet for workers.
Earlier this year, The Tyee discovered the Conservative government had given Facebook permission to hire 93 temporary foreign workers for its Vancouver operation.
The move irked some locals in the industry, including University of British Columbia software engineering assistant professor Ali Mesbah, who said several of his students had applied for jobs with the U.S. giant.
"When we heard Facebook was opening an office in Vancouver, we all got excited," Mesbah said. "A lot of our students want to stay in Vancouver and find a job here. These students are really skilled and trained in the most advanced software engineering topics [and] are definitely equipped to obtain such positions locally."
But Employment and Social Development Canada said that the company had met all the qualifications to import temporary foreign workers.