Foreign-worker restrictions panned Lukaszuk, Duncan dismiss new federal rules

EDMONTON - Edmonton-Strathcona candidate Linda Duncan is getting widespread support for her call to fix the federal migrant worker program.

A new federal policy forcing people who immigrate under the program to leave the country after four years, then wait four more years before they can reapply, comes into effect Friday. "It's rather counter-intuitive," Alberta Minister of Employment and Immigration Thomas Lukaszuk said.

If Alberta trains the workers, gives them experience to add to their resumes, then sends them packing, countries like Australia will be sending us thank-you cards, Lukaszuk said Thursday.

"We now know our labour shortages will not be sporadic. The temporary worker solution is fine for temporary shortages but we shouldn't be applying a temporary solution to what appears to be a permanent problem. What we really need in Canada is a foreign worker program with paths to permanent residency."

Duncan, who is running for the NDP, called a joint news conference Thursday with the Alberta Federation of Labour and Filipino worker Danilo De Leon.

De Leon works as a cashier at a Petro Canada. He would like to stay in Edmonton and sponsor his wife and two daughters but that's unlikely to happen.

Two years ago, Duncan's office was getting calls from small businesses closing their doors because they couldn't compete with the salaries being paid in Fort McMurray.

That stopped with the downturn, but now industry reports say a new labour shortage is already affecting the petroleum sector and will likely be more severe than that witnessed in 2007.

Premier Ed Stelmach recently warned that rig operators and staff in the transportation industry are already scare.

"The answer to this should not be let's just bring in temporary foreign workers with no equal rights," Duncan said. "We need a strategy for employment in this county, a strategy in this province."

"It's absolutely appalling that we have this four years and you're out rule."

Since 2007, Alberta has had more people enter the province annually through the temporary foreign worker program than through traditional immigration streams. About 60,000 temporary foreign workers currently live here and 28,610 more came in 2009, the last year for which numbers are available.

Alberta is allowed to sponsor 5,000 of those workers, giving them a chance at permanent residency, "but that doesn't even scratch the surface of what the requirement will be," Lukaszuk said.

If someone under the temporary program can't get sponsored from the province, they have to move outside the country before applying to re-enter as a permanent resident.

"We're going to be short 100,000 people in the next four to five years. If you have a cap of 5,000 people under that program, you are going to be continuously falling behind," said Ken Kobly, president of the Alberta Chamber of Commerce.

"I agree with her," he said referring to Duncan, joking that his statement would likely give the NDP candidate a heart attack.

"We're coming out of this downturn a lot faster than expected. We need to look at growing our labour force with permanent immigrants," Kobly said.

"Temporary foreign workers should have a leg up on everybody else. They come into the county. They can stay for four years. If they prove themselves to be of good character and stay out of trouble, effectively they are serving a four-year probation period."

On the campaign trail, Duncan's opponent, Conservative candidate Ryan Hastman said the "temporary foreign worker program is working.

"What's clear is (Duncan) is using the election platform to give a boost to big labour and to try and make a partisan issue out of a foreign labour program that has been very successful," Hastman said.

"Business groups and employers have called for (the program) to continue, and I don't think now is the time for Duncan and big labour to attack our immigration policies and push hot buttons just because there is an election campaign."

Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose, who is running in Edmonton-Spruce Grove, said if there is a problem with the 5,000-person cap, it will be addressed through consultation with the province and employers.

Temporary workers "do have an option to apply to be a permanent resident," she said.

"But they do have to do that through the proper channel. This program was always meant to be a temporary program that's employer driven to deal with temporary shortages in the labour market."

Edmonton Journal, Fri Apr 1 2011
Byline: Elise Stolte

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