Fast-food chains abusing foreign workers program, says labour leader

Program intended to address shortages in high-skill jobs

A federal program intended to fast-track skilled workers into Canada is instead being used by a "who's who" of fast-food chains and service industry companies to import low-wage employees, says the Alberta Federation of Labour.

The AFL said Tuesday its research found half the successful applications for temporary foreign workers under the "accelerated labour market opinion" (ALMO) program last year were from employers who typically employ low-skilled workers, such as fast-food chains, gas stations and convenience stores.

"What's disturbing to us about the list is the majority of applications were for employers that were not normally employing highly-skilled workers," AFL president Gil McGowan said.

"It's a who's who of the Canadian service industry sector."

By the numbers: How the program is used in Alberta

The initiative, started by the government last April, gives employers with an established track record in the temporary foreign workers program the necessary go-ahead within 10 business days.

Employers who want to hire a temporary foreign worker must first get a labour market opinion from the federal government agreeing there is no Canadian capable of filling the position.

When it launched the program last April, the government said the initiative was intended to address labour shortages in "high-skill occupations," including skilled trades.

But McGowan said documents obtained by the AFL under access-to-information legislation demonstrate otherwise.

Temporary Foreign Worker Approvals

According to the AFL, half of 4,839 ALMO approvals nationwide between April and December 2012 were "questionable" because they were granted to companies that employ mainly unskilled workers.

Alberta had the highest number of ALMO applications of any province or territory: 2,640.

The AFL considered 58 per cent of Alberta applications — 1,542 — as questionable.

"It stretches the bounds of credulity that all these employers have been using the program to hire highly-skilled workers or managers," McGowan said.

However, one well-known Canadian company included on the list of ALMO applicants — Tim Hortons — said it has a legitimate need for a high number of skilled workers.

"These individuals often have many years of industry experience and education within the restaurant and hospitality industries and are crucial to our business," spokeswoman Alexandra Cygal said via email.

"Every Tim Hortons restaurant requires about four supervisors and at least one manager to handle our 24/7 business."

Tim Hortons franchisees have been hiring temporary foreign workers since 2005, but Cygal stressed they do so only after exhausting their options locally.

"Without this employment program, many Tim Hortons restaurants would not be able to operate full time or, in many cases, remain open at all," she said.

The AFL has asked federal auditor general Michael Ferguson to investigate the ALMO initiative.

The AFL's concerns come just days after reports the Royal Bank of Canada is laying off 45 employees in Toronto and replacing a portion of them with foreign workers and outsourcing the remainder of positions abroad.

RBC has denied the report, saying it is not using foreign workers to replace employees in Canada.

A spokeswoman for Human Resources and Skills Development Minister Diane Finley said Tuesday the government is "very concerned" about the recent controversies involving the temporary foreign worker program.

"The program exists to address real and acute labour shortages in certain sectors and regions across the country on a temporary basis. It was never meant to replace Canadians with foreign workers," Alyson Queen said in an emailed statement.

"Officials are investigating and will look into any evidence that the program is being misused."

Although McGowan has specific criticisms of the ALMO process, the AFL wants the temporary foreign worker program abolished.

The program allows employers to pay temporary workers up to 15 per cent less for high-skill positions and up to five per cent below average wages for low-skill jobs — but not lower than the local minimum wage.

"The real problem is not rogue employers, but the temporary foreign worker program itself," McGowan said.

Calgary Herald, Thursday, Apr 11 2013
Byline: Jason Van Rassel

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