by Robert Fife
The Liberal government plans to launch a full-scale review of the controversial temporary foreign workers program.
MaryAnn Mihychuk, the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour, told The Globe and Mail she will ask a parliamentary committee for proposals to fix the program.
Reforms passed by the former Conservative government limit foreign workers to 10 per cent of a company’s work force in low-paying jobs, and prohibit employers from hiring them in regions of high unemployment. In most communities with an unemployment rate above 6 per cent, companies cannot qualify for the program.
“I think it is timely for a serious review of the whole program,” Ms. Mihychuk said in an interview. “We would like to put it forward to a House committee to review, and there are issues on this program from coast to coast to coast.”
A source said Liberal MPs from Atlantic Canada also want cabinet to exempt fish processing plants from the restrictions. Farm workers and live-in caretakers were exempted from the Conservatives’ reforms, but not seafood processors.
While the Liberals criticized the Conservative government’s handling of the program, the party did not propose reforms in its 2015 election platform.
All seats in Atlantic Canada went to Liberals, and MPs from the region are pressing hard for changes, saying the restrictions hurt seasonal businesses and the service sector.
Nova Scotia Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner, who is also Ms. Mihychuk’s parliamentary secretary, said the program needs to be overhauled to take into account the demands of seasonal businesses.
“Changes over the last couple of years have impacted seasonal industries. We still generate over 50 per cent of the regional GDP through seasonal industries. The work force is getting older. The out-migration is significant,” he said.
Yvonne Jones, the Liberal MP from Labrador, said the changes to the TFW program hurt her province’s tourism and fish processing industries, making it difficult to get seasonal labour.
“Because of the fact we are unable to recruit under the temporary foreign worker program, we have seen a lot of businesses having to close or scale back their hours and days of operations. This is really affecting services to communities that need that service,” Ms. Jones said.
Conservative MP Jason Kenney, the former minister who overhauled the program, said it would be dumb economic policy to exempt fish plant workers from the terms of the temporary workers program when so many Atlantic Canadians are unemployed and many jobless oil workers are returning from Alberta and Saskatchewan.
“This is classic Liberal position. Make it easy for local fish plant workers to go on unemployment insurance and make it easier for the employers to bring in fish plant workers from overseas,” he said.
Mr. Kenney said one of the reasons his government tightened the rules for employment insurance and temporary foreign workers was that communities in Atlantic Canada had local fish plant workers collecting employment insurance while foreigners were doing their jobs.
Ms. Mihychuk said the review by the Commons employment committee needs to encompass every sector of the economy, including the impact of the collapse in oil prices.
“You look at the massive layoffs in Alberta, it’s really changing the labour market,” she said. “A lot of indigenous people are strongly opposed to [TFW], saying it’s time for indigenous people to be given a chance. So there are a lot of different angles to the whole program.”
Unemployment among aboriginal people is more than twice the rate for non-aboriginals, according to the 2011 National Household Survey.
The Liberals also believe a credible pathway to citizenship for foreign workers is needed.
“It’s a situation that is complicated. These are people – excellent people – and a lot of them want to stay in the country,” Ms. Mihychuk added.
The Liberals say the Conservatives mismanaged the 2014 reforms and based many of their regional employment assumptions on inaccurate labour market data.
“Under the temporary workers program, basically, they connected it to data around employment statistics, but those employment statistics were not completely accurate,” Ms. Jones said. “They looked at large regions as opposed to individual areas where the problem was most sensitive. And because they didn’t go with the [mandatory] long-form census, a lot of the data was incomplete,” she added.
Mr. Kenney said the review is unnecessary, saying the reforms he brought in were balanced and well thought-out.
“I think our changes have turned out to be prescient given the downturn in the western economy, in particular where the most skilled part [of TFW] was being overused. With over 100,000 Albertans having lost their jobs in the past few months, and if more people were pouring into the Alberta labour market from abroad as de facto indentured workers while many Canadians are facing unemployment, that would be totally unacceptable,” he said.
Editor’s note: An earlier online version of this article incorrectly referred to an employment rate of 6 per cent in the third paragraph. This version has been corrected to show that it is the unemployment rate.
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