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Survey: Businesses feeling pain of temporary foreign workers crackdown

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OTTAWA - Some businesses have been forced to move projects out of Canada because of the federal government's ongoing crackdown on temporary foreign workers, says a new survey.

The majority of the companies polled in the study by the Canadian Employee Relocation Council also report that the crackdown has resulted in higher costs and long delays in the completion of critical contracts.

Just over a third say they've lost business because of the new restrictions, while another third report they've had to move work out of Canada in the last few months.

The council is a non-profit, business association that promotes labour mobility. Its members include some of the biggest companies and institutions in Canada, such as Suncor, CN, IBM Canada, Sun Life Financial and the Bank of Canada.

A spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said the federal government continues to review its new policies on temporary foreign workers.

The poll comes as businesses, trade associations and labour unions all plead with the government to do something about labour mobility. Most have scant hope that next week's budget will contain any new initiatives to ease the movement of workers, either among provinces or from other countries.

While some economists question the existence of a skills shortage, the companies polled, as well as many trade associations and unions, complain about difficulties in finding skilled Canadian workers in several sectors, or for senior executive positions.

The companies polled said the majority of people they hire under the temporary foreign worker program are highly skilled employees, including managers and university-educated professionals in some specialized fields.

"On the one hand, the Canadian government is aggressively seeking more open mobility with trading partners on an international level to make it easier for Canadian companies to move staff, operations and executives more freely within our trading partners," said council head Stephen Cryne, citing the new trade deal with the European Union.

"At the same time, the same government is proposing measures to restrict major companies in Canada when it comes to temporary foreign workers. From the business perspective, there is no disagreement that Canadians should have the jobs first, but the reality is that many of the needs can't be met in the Canadian domestic market."

Canadian workers also face barriers in terms of interprovincial labour mobility.

Labour unions and businesses alike have come together to urge the Conservative government to tackle the issue.

One suggestion is Bill C-201, a private member's bill introduced by New Democrat MP Chris Charlton last fall.

It would allow tradespeople to deduct from their taxable income travel and accommodation expenses incurred to secure and maintain work at any construction sites more than 80 kilometres from their homes. Now, those expenses are out of pocket.

The bill was debated in the House of Commons this week but received a chilly reception from Conservatives.

"It is a costly and flawed piece of legislation that could expose Canada's tax system to a high likelihood of abuse," said Tory MP Dave Van Kesteren.

Cryne said the government's stance on labour mobility and temporary foreign workers is startling coming from Conservatives, supposedly the pro-business party. But with a federal election just a year away, Cryne speculated, the Tories are keen to allay fears that foreigners are taking jobs from Canadians.

"It's great politics for them, but it's lousy policy," he said. "It's hurting us in Canada, and it's hurting us on the international stage."

Canada, Cryne added, would be far better served if companies were easily able to bring in highly skilled workers from around the globe.

The new restrictions include the suspension of what is called the accelerated labour market opinion process. That means much longer wait times for approvals to hire temporary foreign help.

"It is increasingly becoming difficult to anticipate the time lines," one company told the survey.

Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter at @leeanne25

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