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Feds Can't Back Up Foreign Worker Program Changes, NDP's Ashton Says

Liberals recently allowed a seasonal exemption to federal program rules.

By Jeremy J. Nuttall 13 Apr 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee's Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

This coverage of Canadian national issues is made possible because of generous financial support from our Tyee Builders.

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NDP labour critic Niki Ashton called recent federal exemptions to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program 'very troubling.' Photo: Twitter.

The Liberal government can't produce anything to back up its decision to ease restrictions on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, according to the New Democratic Party critic for labour.

Niki Ashton said she asked Employment Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk to show the materials used in the government's recent decision to approve an exemption that allows companies to bring in unlimited numbers of temporary foreign workers to fill seasonal jobs this year.

"I asked her to share the reports that guided her to the decision she's making," Ashton said, noting the conversation happened at a Monday committee meeting. "There are no reports. She gave this generic answer following my question."

In February, the Liberals quietly removed a regulation that capped the number of foreign workers working below a provincial median wage at 10 per cent of a company's workforce, but only for businesses in seasonal industries.

The removal of the cap means, for example, that employers such as fish canneries and resorts can bring in as many such workers as they want so long as the employment term is under 180 days. Under former regulations, the limit was 120 days.

The easing of restrictions applies to all seasonal workers, but Ashton said it was initially done to accommodate fish processing plants in the Maritimes.

She said she suspects the Liberals are bowing to political pressure from their MPs in the Maritimes, who are being lobbied by the seafood industry.

A spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada took questions from The Tyee Friday, but had not responded by late Tuesday.

A search Tuesday of the government's job bank shows 17 available positions in fish processing plants with wages peaking at $15 an hour, while most jobs pay around $12.

Over the last decade, use of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program has skyrocketed amid allegations of employers using it to skirt Canadian wages.

There have also been reports of workers brought to Canada through the program to perform menial work with no chance of being granted permanent residency.

Critics of the program have said that businesses should be forced to increase their wages in the spirit of the free market if they can't find local workers.

Under public pressure, the Conservatives made changes to the program in 2013 and 2014, including imposing the cap on the number of workers an employer could bring in through the program.

Trudeau once a critic

The Liberal party was among the critics of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program under the Conservatives, but now Trudeau's government is changing its tune, Ashton said.

The Liberals have committed to a review of the program, which Ashton said she expects will be held sometime in June.

But she said lifting the cap for some industries in the meantime, without appearing to have studied if it is needed, is questionable.

"They've gone ahead and allowed for unlimited acceptance of TFWs in certain sectors without due diligence, without reforming the program, without tackling the major issue, which is the lack of access to citizenship that TFWs face," she said. "Their approach on the TFW program is very troubling."

In 2014, then third-party leader Justin Trudeau wrote a column for the Toronto Star criticizing the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, and calling for it to be "scaled back."*

Trudeau said the program "drives down wages and displaces Canadian workers" due to loose restrictions under the Conservatives.

"First, the Temporary Foreign Worker Program needs to be scaled back dramatically over time, and refocused on its original purpose: to fill jobs on a limited basis when no Canadian workers can be found," he wrote.

Playing with fire in Alberta: labour leader

So why then, wonders the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, is Trudeau now allowing exemptions for a program that he once said threatened Canadian jobs?

Gil McGowan, who ran for the federal NDP last October, said he was concerned after hearing the exemptions are being used by Alberta resorts to hire temporary foreign workers.

Meanwhile, Alberta's labour market limps on following the collapse in oil prices, with the unemployment rate increasing by 2.3 per cent since 2014.

McGowan said the Liberals are "playing with fire" by lifting the exemptions.

"It might lead to some kind of political or social explosion," he said. "If [Albertans] get wind the Liberals are opening up the program again while unemployment rates are at levels we haven't seen in more than a generation, I'm afraid that people will simply lose it."

McGowan said the Liberals have not spoken to him about the matter, and called the move the "worst kind" of political bait and switch.

"The Liberals didn't run on a promise of expanding the Temporary Foreign Worker Program," McGowan said. "In fact, quite to the contrary: whenever they talked about it they said the program was exploitative."

*Story corrected April 13 at 11:15 a.m. to amend a quote error.  [Tyee]

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