CALGARY - Alberta is taking advantage of an economic lull to examine how a flood of temporary foreign workers has affected the province and how to prepare for the next labour squeeze, a provincial cabinet minister said Friday.While some have called for a federal Temporary Foreign Worker program to be nixed altogether, Employment and Immigration Minister Thomas Lukaszuk said the initiative has served Alberta well.
"I would not be advocating for scrapping the Temporary Foreign Worker program. This program has actually worked very well at a time when there was a severe worker shortage," he told reporters.
Lukaszuk said he's asked his parliamentary assistant, Teresa Woo-Paw, to gather feedback from across the province on how the program can be improved. Woo-Paw is to report her findings in the spring, and then pass them on to Ottawa, which is in charge of the program.
"With the economy slowing down in Alberta, this is the right time for us to stop and consult and plan for the future," Woo-Paw said.
The province also says it is committing $850,000 in funding to agencies that help temporary foreign workers adjust to life in Alberta.
During boom times, thousands of workers from abroad were brought in to fill a variety of jobs across Canada, white-collar and blue-collar alike.
In Alberta, the need was driven largely by breakneck growth in the province's oilsands, where there weren't enough local engineers, tradespeople and labourers to get the work done.
Many companies resorted to flying in workers from their homes in eastern Canada for week-long shifts. Others took advantage of the Temporary Foreign Worker program, for which companies qualify only if they can prove they have exhausted all of their local options.
The Alberta Federation of Labour calls the Temporary Foreign Worker program "dysfunctional" and says it should be replaced entirely by immigration through regular channels.
Many of the workers are forced to pay illegal fees to recruitment agencies, live in sub-standard housing and work unpaid overtime, said secretary-treasurer of the AFL, Nancy Furlong. Workers are commonly misled into believing they will be able to stay in Canada for good, she said.
"Alberta needs these workers now and will need them in the future. All who come here to work, including low-skilled workers, should be able to get on the ladder to permanent residency and citizenship," said Furlong.
"Low-skilled workers have almost no access to apply for immigration."
Alberta currently has more than 60,000 temporary foreign workers. Many were laid off when the economy tanked in late 2008 and into 2009.
Even though Alberta's unemployment rate sits above six per cent, Lukaszuk says it's inevitable the labour market will be squeezed again when the economy recovers.
"One doesn't really need a crystal ball to come to the conclusion that not only Canada, but most western countries, will be facing a severe and very acute labour shortage for several decades to come," he said, noting baby boomers retiring in droves and Canada's natural birthrate is flat.
Even in this sluggish economy, there are sectors - particularly the trades - that need more manpower, he added.
One problem with the program has been de-facto permanent jobs being filled by a string of temporary workers. More needs to be done to fill those permanent spots with permanent workers, possibly by expanding a provincial nominee program, Lukaszuk said.
But the federal Temporary Foreign Worker program still plays an important role, Lukaszuk said.
"General immigration - opening up the borders for anyone who applies to come in - does not necessarily address your labour problem, because you need specific skill sets for specific locations and for specific employers," he said.
There will always be jobs that can't easily be filled by Albertans.
"We have evolved into a society that is affluent and there are certain jobs that Albertans simply choose not to take," Lukaszuk said.
There are also "geographic difficulties."
"Some of the jobs are available in areas that Albertans either choose not to live or choose not to travel to on an ongoing basis."
Canadian Press, Fri Sept 3 2010
Byline: Lauren Krugel