Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Foreign-workers program getting reconstructed

New rules make it tougher to replace Canadians

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OTTAWA -- Immigration Minister Jason Kenney introduced changes to the temporary-foreign-workers program Monday to make it tougher and more expensive for employers to get approval to bring in foreign workers.

"We've been concerned about examples of the program not being used as intended," Kenney said.

In the wake of allegations Canadians are being replaced by cheaper foreign labour, the federal government will no longer allow foreign workers to be paid up to 15 per cent less than the average Canadian wages in an industry under any circumstance and will eliminate the Accelerated Labour Market Opinion process which gave some companies the ability fast-track the approval of foreign workers. New fees to process applications for foreign-worker approvals will be paid by employers.

The government is also going to give itself more ability to suspend or revoke work permits where there is evidence the system was being abused, and require all employers who use temporary foreign workers to show a plan for reverting to Canadian workers over time.

"What we're trying to do is put more financial pressure on employers to look at hiring Canadians first," said Kenney.

He acknowledged it will take employers longer to fill labour shortages but said he wants employers "to not just double but triple their efforts to hire and train Canadian workers." Earlier this month, there was a public outcry over allegations RBC brought in foreign workers to replace Canadians. There were also concerns raised recently about a Chinese company requiring employees to be able to speak Mandarin in order to work on a mining project in northern B.C.

In Manitoba in January, the Plumbers and Steamfitters Union complained about the use of Chinese workers hired at the Royal Canadian Mint, when there were workers here that could have done the job. The Chinese workers were hired by a Chinese firm that won the contract for all work related to a new plating line and the Mint said the company needed to have its own technicians do the work.

In March, the provincial government said it would look into a complaint an Edmonton-based contractor hired foreign workers for the new Women's Hospital construction project despite the union saying there were qualified and available workers from Manitoba who could have taken those jobs.

Pagnotta Industries owner Alex Pagnotta denied the company was overlooking local workers, and said while seven or eight of the 22 workers hired at that point were from Ireland, it was actually more expensive to hire them and they were being paid at least as well, if not better, than Canadians would have been.

However Victor DaSilva of the Construction & Specialized Workers' Union Local 1258, says the company was offering to pay workers less and nobody applied because they refused to work for such low wages. DaSilva is not convinced anything Kenney introduced Monday will make a difference because he said employers aren't trying just to fill jobs, they are trying to fill jobs for less money.

"It's about cheap labour," he said.

The number of temporary foreign workers has doubled in the last 10 years to more than 338,000. In Manitoba, however, the numbers have been relatively stable in the last five years, growing from almost 5,300 in 2008 to a little more than 5,550 today. The vast majority work in food processing and agriculture.

Seasonal agricultural workers, who are brought in for a few months each year to help on farms, will mainly be unaffected by the changes.

Liberal labour critic and Winnipeg MP Kevin Lamoureux said the fact the number of foreign workers has doubled over a period of time when unemployment in Canada is high suggests there are problems in the system. However, in Manitoba the program is working well, he said, because after six months, most temporary foreign workers can apply for permanent status through the provincial-nominee immigration program.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 30, 2013 A6

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Updated on Tuesday, April 30, 2013 at 8:07 AM CDT: adds fact box, adds photo

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