The latest federal budget is "an insult to Canadians," says Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan, who says the government's promise to promote Canadians over the Temporary Foreign Worker program will not encourage the private sector to hire more Canadians.
"It has become far too easy for companies, especially construction companies like in Fort McMurray, to choose foreign workers over the next generation of Canadian workers," says McGowan. "In its current form, it's way too easy for employers to fill positions with foreign workers as opposed to taking on apprentices."
Thursday's budget primarily shifts Ottawa's support behind trades programs to drive Canada's economy, encouraging the private sector to play a bigger role in recruiting workers and training unemployed workers for in-demand jobs.
The goal is to fill nearly 220,000 job vacancies across Canada by reaching out to the disabled, youth and aboriginals.
"Training Canadians for Canadian jobs is clearly the message we have," said Fort McMurray-Athabasca MP Brian Jean on Thursday. "You can see it's a growth economy budget."
However, a recent report from the AFL says companies are still turning to the Temporary Foreign Worker program.
"It's clear that the Harper government is sucking and blowing when it comes to foreign workers," says McGowan. "On one hand, they claim the budget is all about training Canadians to fill job vacancies. On the other hand, they are still going to promote the expansion of the Temporary Foreign Worker program."
A record of 213,516 temporary workers came to Canada in 2012, up from 190,575 in 2011. In Alberta, McGowan says there are now more temporary workers than immigrants.
"There are enough Canadians to fill these jobs if employers and government gets serious about training the next generation of Canadians," he says. "Even with this budget, I'm not convinced they've gotten serious about that."
McGowan singled out the province's non-unionized construction industry as being one of the worst abusers of the program, because it's cheaper to bring in skilled workers than to train new apprentices. He also says these workers are paid, on average, 15% less than their Canadian counterparts.
As a result, non-unionized construction firms are able to outbid unionized firms for contracts with the money saved. McGowan says he would feel better about the program if employers who hired a certain number of Canadians, particularly apprentices, were the only ones getting access to foreign workers.
"Keep in mind that we are not against immigration. Canada was built on the backs of hard working immigrants," says McGowan. "This is not immigration. This is a program that uses foreign workers the way we use post-it notes, something we just throw away when we're done."
He also says the program is unfair to the workers, because many are under the impression they can become citizens once their work permits expire. Instead, most are forced to leave.
"I'd say 80% to 90% want to stay, bring their families over. But for most, especially the lower skilled workers, that won't happen," he says. "The ones working in the very low-skilled jobs, like behind the counter at McDonald's or Tim Hortons, they have no hope of ever becoming citizens."
Fort McMurray Today, Monday, Mar. 25, 2013
Byline: Vincent McDermott