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Canada's business community nervous about Tory 'wage floor' idea on TFWs

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OTTAWA - The business community is reacting with apprehension to the federal government's consideration of a so-called wage floor as it ponders new fixes to its troubled temporary foreign worker program.

At a closed-door meeting with stakeholders earlier this week, Employment Minister Jason Kenney presented various options to tighten the program.

They included measures that would prevent companies from paying temporary foreign workers less than a set wage level yet to be determined. That wage floor would be aimed at making it more difficult for employers such as low-paying fast-food restaurants to access the program, the stakeholders were told.

No final decisions on the proposals have been made, but one of those stakeholders was nonetheless unimpressed.

"Minister Kenney is not known to be a union sympathizer, but some of his recent language would make you wonder," Dan Kelly, head of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said in an interview Friday.

Kenney has called upon businesses, particularly fast-food restaurants, to raise wages if they can't find Canadian labour in their communities.

The latest proposals floated by his department have struck some in the business community as yet another startling example of traditionally business-friendly Conservatives interfering in how corporations choose to do business.

The wage floor idea essentially amounts to banning major sectors of the economy from hiring temporary foreign workers, including those in regions with labour shortages, Kelly charges.

"It would basically cut out large chunks of the labour force. Retail, hospitality, the service sector, the restaurant sector — these are Canada's largest employers and the government appears to be tiering the program so that it's only available to very highly skilled occupational categories."

He added that employers already have to pay temporary foreign workers above minimum wage in many communities.

Stephen Cryne, head of the Canadian Employee Relocation Council, is also uncomfortable about the wage floor.

"Leave it to market forces." said Cryne, who was also at the meeting. "There are lots of ways of doing that — collective bargaining, industry demand, economic cycles, those are the things that determine wage rates."

Cryne added that he wonders why the government isn't cracking down on the almost 60,000 workers, aged 18 to 35, who come to Canada every year under the International Experience Canada program without a skills assessment or wage regulations.

"If they want to close something up, isn't that one area that they should looking at?"

Darrell Kopke, founder of consulting firm Institute B, works with several organizations that have had to hire temporary foreign workers due to a scarcity of local job applicants.

"The vast majority of businesses are small- to medium-sized businesses, and many of them struggle just to get by; it's tough to do when you don't have a workforce," he said.

"Let's have better enforcement, not abolishment. We need to be aware of the needs of the small-business owners who are creating the vast majority of jobs in Canada."

In the stakeholder meeting on Thursday, government officials also floated the possibility of significantly higher fees for companies seeking temporary foreign workers. Those fees would be on par with what American companies are charged to hire such employees, the meeting was told.

Canadian companies currently face a $275 fee to apply to hire temporary foreign workers. In the U.S., employers can pay as much as $2,300 to access the American program.

The government also raised the possibility of exempting areas of the country with full employment from any crackdown measures.

Kenney has been on the hot seat for weeks as fresh allegations have surfaced about abuses of the temporary foreign worker program by various companies, but particularly those in the food services sector.

Last month, he placed a temporary ban on restaurants that prevents them from accessing the program and a new slate of rule changes are going to be announced soon.

The temporary foreign worker program has ballooned under the Conservatives from about 100,000 people in 2002 to as many as 338,000 now working across the country. In 2013 alone, Ottawa approved approximately 240,000 temporary foreign workers.

Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter at @leeanne25

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