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Changes to foreign worker program generally positive

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On Friday, the federal government introduced wide-ranging changes to Canada's temporary foreign worker program which massively shifts who will be allowed into Canada to perform temporary work. While there are some weaknesses in the announced changes, over all, the changes are positive for Canadians and Canadian businesses.

One of the problems with the old program was there was no way to ensure Canadians and Canadian permanent residents got a first crack at jobs. Under the new rules, businesses that want to hire foreign workers will now have to indicate the number of Canadians who applied for the vacant position, the number of Canadians who were interviewed and offered positions, the number of Canadians hired, the number of Canadians who declined the job and the number of Canadians who were not qualified for the job and why they were not qualified.

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These questions, which are actually a throwback to similar questions the government asked of businesses in these applications in 1990s, are welcome. By asking these questions, businesses will be encouraged to employ Canadians first and the government will be able to hold businesses to account for their answers.

Another problem with the old program was the government provided almost no assistance to businesses that wanted to hire Canadians. The creation of a job-matching service to link employers with unemployed Canadians is welcome and overdue. Last year, the government announced a system to match prospective immigrants with Canadian employers. It is about time Canadians get similar benefits.

The continuation of an immigration stream for foreign workers through international reciprocal agreements is also welcome. Now known as international mobility programs, these programs allow Canadians to work abroad under free trade and other international agreements in exchange for giving certain foreigners the same opportunity in Canada. These programs are generally positive both for businesses and Canadians.

The announcement certain high-demand, high-paid and short-duration temporary foreign workers will have their applications processed in as little as 10 days is also welcome. One of the frustrations of the previous program is processing for all types of workers took months. Speeding up the process for foreign workers who can contribute to the Canadian economy will be welcomed by both businesses and employees.

The commitment to prosecuting companies that violate the law is also welcome. In Manitoba, proactive immigration investigations by Employment Standards have helped ensure law-abiding employers are not at a competitive disadvantage as compared with businesses that break the law. As well, Manitoba's investigations have resulted in greater protection of foreign workers vulnerable to exploitation.

The new program's limits on the number of low-wage foreign workers who can come to Canada is welcome, but has some problems. Under the new definition, workers paid under the provincial median wage are considered low-wage. Unfortunately, this definition does not take into account wage differences in rural areas of Manitoba. The old test of looking at the median wage of a specific occupation in a specific region of the province is a better indication of true employment picture.

Defining what is low-wage is important as the government has introduced a 10 per cent cap on the number of foreign workers an employer may have at each location. This may have a negative effect on some industries and regions. For instance, a number of businesses in rural Manitoba have significant difficulty hiring local employees. As long as these businesses give Canadians a fair shot at available jobs and it can be proven there are not enough qualified Canadians to fill these jobs, there should not an arbitrary cap on the number of foreign workers who can be hired.

Finally, the new $1,000 fee an employer must pay to hire each temporary foreign worker is excessive. If these new reforms to the system will better guarantee the only foreign workers allowed into Canada are ones who are truly filling a labour shortage, barriers to allow these workers into Canada should be reduced. By almost quadrupling the fee from $275 per worker to $1,000 per worker, small- and medium-sized businesses will be put at a competitive disadvantage vis--vis bigger businesses.


Reis Pagtakhan is an immigration lawyer with Aikins Law in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 24, 2014 A9

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