Foreign worker program reassessed: Airlines benefit most, minister jokes

EDMONTON - Canada's temporary foreign worker program is no longer working for Alberta, the province's employment and immigration minister said Tuesday.

"In my opinion, it was a program that had fulfilled its mandate, (by) suddenly providing a large number of workers to an economy that suddenly had a massive shortage of workers," Thomas Lukaszuk said.

"It's not working well now. It's a temporary solution to a permanent problem."

Starting this fall, Lukaszuk's parliamentary assistant -- Calgary MLA Teresa Woo-Paw -- will lead a series of roundtable discussions all over Alberta to reassess the federal temporary foreign worker program.

Woo-Paw's findings will be the basis for recommendations to Ottawa on how to change the program.

In recent years, federal restrictions on temporary foreign workers have eased, allowing people from a variety of skill and educational backgrounds to come to Canada on working visas no longer than two years.

Among all provinces and territories, Alberta has seen the biggest boost in temporary foreign workers in the last five years.

By December 2009, the province was home to nearly 66,000 people on temporary work visas. In December 2005, just 16,000 people lived in Alberta under the same visa restrictions.

According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Ontario -- with a much bigger population -- counted 95,000 short-term workers in December. British Columbia had 69,000 and Quebec had just 31,000.

The temporary program is not supposed to be a gateway to long-term residency, an issue Lukaszuk said paves the way for the same employers to keep on hiring new foreign workers for the same jobs.

"Anecdotally ... probably the top 80 per cent of temporary foreign workers, given the chance, would love to just stay," Lukaszuk said.

"Why not consider some permanency (for) this workforce. I always joke the only group that really benefits from the current temporary foreign worker program is Air Canada, because they're flying people in and out."

The president of Alberta's Hotel and Lodging Association said the program had worked well for the service sector, but acknowledged the need for front-line labour exceeds short-term solutions.

"I think there is room for improvement," Dave Kaiser said, adding the program needs the flexibility to allow people to stay longer.

But Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan called the program a "train wreck."

While he was pleased Lukaszuk and Woo-Paw plan to review the program, he said it doesn't work for foreign workers, Canadian workers or employers.

"This is a program that's so dysfunctional it probably has to be scrapped entirely," McGowan said.

He pointed to a government report released this spring by the NDP that showed incidents of temporary foreign workers not being paid for overtime or statutory holidays.

McGowan said thousands of people have been brought to Canada with little understanding of their rights.

"What essentially we've done is create a European-style guest worker program," he said. "We think both the federal and provincial governments ought to go back to the drawing board."

Edmonton Journal, Wed July 21 2010
Byline: Trish Audette

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