Faced with a looming labour shortage in a perpetually expanding economy, the door is opening wider for temporary foreign workers specializing in six in-demand trades, announced federal immigration minister Jason Kenney, Monday.
The changes to the Temporary Foreign Workers program will reduce the amount of paperwork needed to hire trained foreign workers who can work as welders, heavy-duty mechanics, ironworkers, millwrights, carpenters and estimators - jobs that are in short supply in Alberta.
The new program - which is part of a one-year pilot project - will also allow skilled workers to move freely between Alberta employers without requiring authorization from Ottawa.
"It sounds like a good deal. We need those skills here in Alberta and if one employer can't use them anymore or goes through some internal changes, they can stay here and find other employment," said Ken Chapman, executive director of the Oil Sands Developers Group.
The changes have scrapped what used to be a bureaucratic, six-month application process, in favour of a one-step, streamlined process.
Companies can now begin recruiting in visa exempt countries, such as the United States, and invite those workers to Canada. As long as the workers make an application to work in Canada as a trades person, they can now be issued a work permit at major Canadian airports in as little as 30 minutes.
Under the current program, Chapman says foreign workers coming to Canada are issued a visa that only allows them to work under one employer. If a worker with skilled labour was laid off or fired, they were often forced to return home if they could not alter their visa conditions.
"We need to treat the foreign workers who come here with in-demand skills and trades in a fair way that meets the needs of industry and the region," he said. "It's a good move."
Ottawa hopes the move will fill a growing void in skilled labour. However, the Alberta Federation of Labour says the pilot program will leave fewer safeguards for foreign workers.
"Foreign workers are supposed to receive comparable wages and working conditions as Canadians, but there are no real mechanisms in place to ensure this happens. Once the foreign workers are in the province, they work at the whim of their employer," says Nancy Furlong, secretary-treasurer of the AFL, which represents 150,000 Alberta workers.
Furlong points to a 2010 provincial report that found 74% of employers who used the Temporary Foreign Worker program had violated the Employment Standards Act regarding pay rates and record keeping.
"Canadians should get first crack at these jobs. But the Harper government is more interested in the bottom line of their friends in the non-union construction sector," she said.
"The result is employers can use these workers in ways that Canadians might not tolerate," says Furlong. "Once a foreign worker is brought in under this program, they can be moved around willy-nilly at the behest of the employer or employers who brought them in."
Fort McMurray Today, Wedn July 18 2012
Byline: Vincent McDermott