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Foreign-worker flop flipped

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Last spring, the federal government introduced new rules to speed up the process by which companies could bring in foreigners to fill jobs in Canada. Known as the accelerated labour market opinion, employers using this process could get approval to hire temporary foreign workers -- employees who are neither Canadians nor Canadian permanent residents -- in 10 days or less. At the same time, another set of new rules was introduced that allowed certain companies to pay temporary foreign workers up to 15 per cent less than the median wage paid to Canadians. Last week, the federal government ended these programs. Why the climb down after barely over one year in this new system?

The rule that allowed certain companies to pay temporary foreign workers less than the median wage was ill-conceived from the outset. When this rule was announced in 2012, the reason given by the government was there were "errors with the calculations" of the average wage. It was not until three weeks after this rule was announced that the government came out with a somewhat clearer explanation -- that there were problems with the "consistency" of the wage methodology.

If there was a "consistency" problem, did the government eliminate this new program because the wage methodology is now consistent? No. Instead, the government stated that since the "vast majority" of employers were not taking advantage of this program, the option was being removed because it was "burdensome."

How "burdensome" is taking the median wage and subtracting 15 per cent? Certainly, any high school student can do this simple math calculation.

Is the real reason for the change because hiring foreigners at 15 per cent less than the median wage was driving down wages for Canadians? Was the government finding companies that reduced their labour costs by 15 per cent were getting a competitive advantage over companies that employed higher-paid Canadians? If not, why the change?

On the issue of the accelerated labour market opinion, the biggest problem was that this option was only available to Canadian employers who had recently employed temporary foreign workers and had a good record of compliance with the law.

Companies with a 100 per cent domestic workforce, who only needed to hire the occasional temporary foreign worker, sometimes had to wait four or more months for government approval. By "accelerating" the process for employers of existing temporary foreign workers, this may have encouraged these companies to hire temporary foreign workers as opposed to Canadians.

In addition to abandoning the 15 per cent wage rule and the accelerated labour market opinion, the government has also proposed to tighten up foreign worker hiring in other ways. One of these changes is the addition of questions employers will be asked to make sure they are not trying to outsource Canadian jobs. Another change is requiring companies that hire foreign workers to produce a "firm" plan to transition to a Canadian workforce.

These changes are welcome to protect Canadian jobs and to ensure the temporary foreign workers who are recruited will fill real gaps in the Canadian workforce.

It also has to be remembered Canada is still projecting skilled-labour shortages in the coming years. An immigration program that allows for temporary foreign workers to fill real vacancies in Canada and then eventually become Canadian citizens will be important for our nation to prosper.

The question that remains is how will the government implement these changes?

There is an easy answer to this. The answer is to look at how the temporary foreign worker program was administered in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Back then, questions were more detailed. Employers were asked to list how many Canadian residents applied for the positions and the rationale as to why these residents were not hired.

In one case I remember, a government officer mandated that all applications and resumés for the job go to her office first so she could assess whether the applying Canadians were qualified and whether the company was intentionally by-passing Canadians in favour of foreign workers. I also recall cases where government officers asked for detailed transition plans to a Canadian workforce.

These changes are not new. What is curious is it appears the government has come to the conclusion the old system may have been better than the new one they have been using for the last year.

 

Reis Pagtakhan is a Winnipeg immigration lawyer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 7, 2013 0

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