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Immigration words good. What of deeds?

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LAST week, the government announced in the federal budget it is going to reform the immigration program that allows businesses to hire foreign nationals to fill jobs in Canada. In theory, many of these proposals are good. The test will be whether the federal government can implement a program that ensures that if there are no qualified Canadians available, that foreign nationals can come to Canada quickly to fill these vacant positions.

The Harper government's stated goal is to ensure Canadians are given the first chance at available jobs. While this goal is good, it is nothing new. For years, Canada has essentially had a "Canada first" policy when it comes to hiring foreign workers. With some exceptions, Canadian businesses must first attempt to recruit from the domestic workforce before they go overseas to hire. What is needed is concrete action, not a restatement of old goals.

Currently, most employers that hire foreign workers must advertise for 14 days in a variety of ways before a foreign worker can be hired. The government dictates where these ads must be run and also some of the content of these ads. For instance, almost all ads must contain information on the salary or wage that will be offered. If the wage range for the job does not meet the median wage for a similar position in the same area, the business will not be allowed to hire foreign workers. While there is some flexibility on the wage, this is the general rule.

Once businesses file their application to hire foreign workers, processing times can be monstrous. For businesses that have not hired a foreign worker in this process in the recent past, wait times in the last year have been as long as four months. If a foreign worker needs a visa to come to Canada, an additional number of weeks or months can be added to the process. In the last 12 months, it was not unheard of for some employers to wait nearly a year for their foreign worker to arrive. This program must be more responsive to business needs.

The government's proposal to increase the domestic recruitment efforts that employers must make before hiring foreign workers is good. Expanding the length and reach of the domestic advertising should give more opportunities for Canadians to see the ads and apply for vacant positions. If no Canadians apply, however, the government should then act to reduce the processing times for these applications. Back in the mid-1990s, processing times were routinely three weeks.

Right now, businesses do not pay a fee to apply for permission to hire a foreign worker. The government's proposal to charge a fee is fair. After all, why should all taxpayers subsidize a specific business. If a fee is going to be charged, however, it must result in better service. Essentially, it must result in faster processing times that will allow businesses to respond to their customers' needs.

In addition to a general fee, the government should also consider introducing a fee for expedited service -- much in the same way the Americans do. In the U.S., businesses can pay additional fees for faster processing times. By introducing such a system, businesses that need foreign workers right away could get them here faster and businesses that can wait a bit longer need not pay additional fees.

The proposal to build a system to re-train unemployed Canadians for jobs that are in demand is also good. This will require a great deal of co-operation among different levels of government, however, and will also require an investment in education and training. While this proposal is laudable, it is a long-term solution will not meet the challenges of Canada's aging workforce and today's employee shortages. Canadian businesses cannot wait for years for the first employees to come out of these re-training programs.

One issue that is problematic is the proposal to amend immigration laws to prohibit employers from making the knowledge of a language outside of English or French a job requirement. While this proposal appears to make sense at first glance, there may be some situations where a job requires a person to deal internationally and to speak another language. The better solution would be to require businesses to prove that a language requirement other than English or French is necessary. If so, businesses should be allowed to hire a foreign worker who speaks another language.

Reis Pagtakhan is a Winnipeg immigration lawyer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 30, 2013 J11

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