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Foreign Worker Program Driving Down Wages, Breaking Alberta Law, Unions Charge

Government program helping employers recruit foreign workers despite high unemployment, says AFL.

By Jeremy J. Nuttall 22 Sep 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee’s reader-funded Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

The federal government is recruiting temporary foreign workers for Alberta at below-market wages while the province’s unemployment is over eight per cent.

Destination Canada, a federal government foreign worker initiative, is hosting ads for Edmonton jobs on its website under a program intended to attract French-speaking foreign workers to Canada.

The initiative is not related to the Crown corporation by the same name promoting Canada as a tourist destination.

Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said the postings undermine the Alberta government’s ban on hiring foreign workers for 29 job categories in the province.

The list includes carpenters and foreman, but Destination Canada is seeking foreign workers to fill jobs in both categories.

“It’s troubling that a government-sponsored organization would think it’s appropriate to bring temporary workers into a labour market like Edmonton where the unemployment rate is high,” McGowan said.

“It’s also troubling that the government agency would think it’s appropriate to advertise positions at well below the market rate.”

Destination Canada encourages French-speaking and bilingual workers to come to Canada to fill skills shortages outside Quebec under the Francophone Mobility program.

To receive a work permit, a foreign worker must be paid the prevailing wage based on a labour market impact assessment. The prevailing wage is essentially the median wage listed on Canada’s Job Bank or the current wages paid by a company seeking to hire under the program.

But under the Francophone Mobility Program some employers are allowed to apply to waive the labour market assessment. It’s not known if the Edmonton jobs were given an exemption. Destination Canada did not respond to The Tyee’s request for comment by deadline.

Destination Canada posted ads for six carpentry jobs in Edmonton at wages below what Canada’s Job Bank lists as the low end of the wage scale for the trade.

In Edmonton the median wage for a carpenter is listed as $29.44 an hour. But the positions advertised on Destination Canada range from $18 to $25 an hour.

“If these workers were indeed brought into Edmonton at that rate, which is far below the standard rate, their wages would undercut the local labour market,” McGowan said. “Which is something the federal government is supposed to stop from happening.”

Another ad for three carpenter foreman in Edmonton advertises $25 to $40 an hour, again below the actual rate, McGowan said.

The Alberta Federation of Labour has argued foreign worker programs drive down wages and exploit people from other countries by paying them lower wages than Canadians.

Immigration is a better way to address skills shortages, allowing workers to put down roots in Canada and reducing the risk of exploitation, the federation maintains.

Federal New Democrat labour critic Sheri Benson said there are obvious problems with oversight of government programs bringing foreign workers to Canada.

Benson pointed to a May auditor general’s report raising concerns about how well Ottawa was enforcing the rules of the Temporary Foreign Worker program.

“They’re really relying on very little information and most of it’s coming from employers,” she said.

The report cautioned the federal government isn’t doing enough to ensure employers are trying to hire local workers before using foreign workers or studying the impact of such programs on the domestic labour market.

It also said authorities did not “adequately identify and deal” with employers who break the rules.

Benson said the Edmonton job postings suggest the government doesn’t know what different programs are doing or how to regulate them.

“You’d think that they would start to talk about their follow up with the auditor general’s report so they might check in with Destination Canada,” she said.

In a policy paper released in July, the Labourers’ International Union of North America raised concerns foreigner worker programs were being used to drive down wages in the construction industry in western Canada.

The union said some workers were even being paid less than minimum wage once deductions for things like travel were taken off their paycheques.  [Tyee]

Read more: Labour + Industry

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