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Brandon illustrates good, bad and ugly in worker program

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BRANDON -- If Canadian politicians want to see many of the things that are right, and some of the things that are wrong, with Canada's temporary foreign worker program, they should come to Brandon.

On one side of the city is the Maple Leaf pork-processing plant. Constructed about a decade ago, the facility had the potential to create 2,000 jobs. Within months of the plant's opening, however, it became clear the local labour market could not fill even a fraction of those positions.

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Faced with a chronic labour shortage that could not be solved locally, Maple Leaf turned to the TFW program to keep its Brandon plant running, recruiting employees experienced in meat processing from all over the world. A decade later, the bulk of the plant's workers are still sourced from overseas.

It is no exaggeration to say the TFW program saved the Maple Leaf plant and Brandon's economy. If not for foreign recruitment, the plant could not operate and Brandon would lose its largest employer and one its largest economic generators.

On the other side of Brandon, and the other side of the coin, there is a fast-food restaurant that has been among the loudest to complain about the federal government's suspension of the TFW program.

During my most recent visit to that restaurant, I was seated in a booth next to where the manager was conducting interviews with job applicants. I overheard him interview a number of high school or college-aged applicants, but none of them was offered a job.

As I was leaving, I counted even more kids waiting to be interviewed. I also noticed more than half of the employees working in the restaurant at the time were foreign workers.

That isn't supposed to happen. The TFW program has a number of eligibility criteria, two of which are that the foreign worker is filling a labour shortage and the employer has conducted reasonable efforts to hire or train Canadians for the job. That was not the case at this restaurant, and recent news reports tell of similar stories throughout the country.

From 2002 to 2012, the number of foreign employees admitted into Canada under the TFW program exploded to 338,000 from 101,000. Did we really need that many workers?

The evidence suggests not. A recent C.D. Howe Institute report disclosed the national unemployment rate remained unchanged during that time frame and in Alberta and British Columbia, which have experienced massive increases in TFW numbers, the unemployment rates actually increased.

While the growing presence of TFW workers has certainly added to the diversity of Brandon's population, it has also had other side-effects that have impacted the community.

Property taxes levied by the Brandon School Division have increased dramatically over the past decade, due in large part to the cost of additional resources needed to address the influx of hundreds of children of TFW workers who arrive at school unable to communicate in either English or French.

Brandon is also experiencing an affordable-housing crisis that did not exist before the Maple Leaf plant opened. The workers are simply not earning enough to pay for the housing they and their families require.

As Employment Minister Jason Kenney considers changes to the TFW program, he would be wise to study Brandon's experience. While it is important to preserve the program for employers who have a genuine need for workers, it must not be abused as a means of depressing wages that would otherwise be paid to Canadians.

While Kenney must adopt stronger measures to prevent employers from hiring foreign workers when there are Canadians willing to work, he should also make it more difficult for Canadians collecting EI benefits to refuse jobs they deem beneath their dignity.

Rules requiring proficiency in either official language would help avoid the expensive language-training costs that are currently paid by Brandon's school division, and assist in workers' integration into the community.

Brandon has shown the TFW program can play a positive role in the economy, but it can also be abused. It's up to Kenney to strengthen the program where it is needed, while closing the loopholes that are keeping wages down and costing Canadians jobs.


Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.

Twitter: @deverynross

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 23, 2014 A11

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