Ottawa targets exploitation of foreign workers; Alberta, feds sign pact to push for fair treatment

With labourers pouring into Alberta from around the world in increasing numbers, Ottawa says it's exploring strict new penalties to crack down on businesses or other organizations that abuse temporary foreign workers.

Federal Human Resources Minister Monte Solberg said Monday he's concerned by reports of abuse taking place against foreign labourers, adding he doesn't want to see Canada's reputation harmed.

"We have an obligation to protect workers and, frankly, our good reputation as a country that treats people well," Solberg told a news conference in Calgary. Solberg said Ottawa is looking at putting new measures in place to address any abuses, including the possibility of penalties or refusing future requests for foreign workers.

He made the comments as Ottawa inked a memorandum of understanding with Alberta that will see the two governments work together to identify any organization "pushing the envelope" in their treatment of foreign workers.

Iris Evans, Alberta's minister of employment, immigration and industry, called the agreement "monumental."

"Although the number of complaints is low, this agreement will also help us better monitor the working conditions of foreign workers," she said.

With the number of temporary foreign workers in the province skyrocketing due to the labour crunch, there is growing concern that such labourers are being mistreated.

There are stories of workers being charged thousands of dollars in recruiting fees for coming to Canada.

Solberg said he's putting employers, labour brokers and unions on notice.

"We're today starting to take names, and anybody who we suspect is in a position where they're not treating people well will be held to account."

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said there were little details or substance in Monday's announcement.

"This is not an announcement about real policy change," he said. "What does it mean? That they're going to continue to study the program?"

McGowan said more concrete actions should have already been in place.

Dan Kelly of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said it's important that governments take a closer look at the temporary foreign worker program as it becomes a larger part of the mainstream workforce.

But he's worried the government will get tough on enforcing laws without having a debate about how a new set of rules will look.

The number of temporary foreign workers travelling to Alberta in 2006 increased 46 per cent over 2005 figures -- hitting an annual flow of 15,172.

Although Alberta has only 10 per cent of Canada's total population, it attracted 13.5 per cent of all foreign labourers who came to the country last year.

Calgary Herald, Page A5, Tues July 10 2007
Byline: Tony Seskus and Kelly Cryderman

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