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How to get foreign worker policy right

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Employment Minister Jason Kenney has revealed the federal government may resurrect an immigration program it previously dumped that would allow Canadian businesses to hire foreign workers faster. Will the government get it right this time?

In April, the federal government shelved the accelerated labour market opinion process. Known as the A-LMO, this process allowed Canadian businesses with a good track record of hiring foreign workers to hire more foreign workers in as little as 10 days. With the elimination of the A-LMO, the process all businesses face can now take eight weeks or longer.

Resurrecting the A-LMO is a good idea in certain circumstances. Before doing so, however the government must take a number of steps to ensure the first priority is getting unemployed Canadians back to work.

First, the federal and provincial governments must come to a conclusion as to how the federal job grant program will work. This program, which was touted by the federal government earlier this year as one that would help unemployed Canadians, has been received coolly by the provinces. It is time our governments put aside months of bickering and get this program working.

Second, a system of matching the unemployed with Canadian employers seeking jobs finally must be developed. When Kenney was immigration minister, he talked about setting up a system in which foreigners interested in immigrating to Canada could essentially post resumés online for Canadian employers to review. It is time to make sure that a similar system, which has been in the works, be finalized for Canadians.

Third, Canadian businesses should still be required to show they have attempted to hire in Canada before going abroad. At present, most employers must advertise vacant positions for four weeks before hiring foreigners. If an employer is going to get expedited treatment of their application, perhaps a longer period of advertising is needed.

Finally, any resurrection of the A-LMO should not include the rule that allows Canadian businesses to pay foreigners below the median wage paid to Canadians. When the A-LMO was in place earlier this year, a separate rule allowed certain employers to pay foreign workers less than the median wage paid to Canadians. This could result in a company with foreign workers getting a competitive advantage by paying lower wages than a company with a purely domestic workforce. Companies that hire domestically should be encouraged, not discouraged, to hire in Canada.

In addition to resurrecting the A-LMO, Kenney also announced the government might eliminate certain occupations from the list the government requires Canadian employers to first try to recruit domestically.

While it is normally a good idea to require Canadian businesses to recruit domestically first, in a few cases this makes little or no sense.

For instance, the government should do away with the requirement that restaurants and bars that bring in a foreign band must first obtain government approval to do so. Under current rules, bars and restaurants must pay a $275 fee for each artist they bring in. While this may seem reasonable, larger venues, such as the MTS Centre or Investors Group Field, do not have to pay this fee or go through this process. Why should a restaurant bringing in a foreign act have to go through this process while Paul McCartney does not for playing at Investors Group Field?

Another group that should be exempt from these rules are foreign students who have graduated from Canadian universities and colleges. Under current rules, foreign students can get permission to work after graduation for a limited time. Many take this opportunity to fill entry-level positions while applying to live in Canada permanently. Unfortunately, because the permanent residency process can take time, many foreign graduates need their work permits extended.

Under current rules, extensions can only be given if the employer agrees to pay the median wage for the position. Because many of these students are in entry-level positions, however, they will not be paid the median wage.

Why should an exception be made for foreign students? Simply put, we know with greater certainty these individuals will be able to contribute to the Canadian economy long term. These individuals are Canadian-educated and generally younger. It is this group of immigrants we should recruit.

If exceptions are given for foreign students, it should only be a one-time exception to allow the foreign student to apply for permanent residency in Canada. It should not be used to allow these students to remain here indefinitely without committing to Canada.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 25, 2013 A13

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