Rules changed for some temporary foreign workers

EDMONTON - The door is open much wider for temporary foreign workers in six construction jobs, and tradesmen from the U.S. can now pick up work permits at the airport, the federal immigration minister announced Monday.

But organized labour is worried Canadians may be left out if companies are no longer required to consider them first in six job categories.

At Alberta's request, the federal government has agreed to eliminate the requirement that an employer must prove that Canadians were not available (called a labour market opinion) in six job categories — welder, ironworker, carpenter, estimator, millwright and heavy duty equipment mechanic. Pipefitters have been coming for a year without a requirement for the LMO.

These are high-demand occupations and employers need to be able to recruit workers much faster to meet growing demand in the oilsands and in Edmonton, where the unemployment rate is 4.4 per cent, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said.

Once inside the province, temporary workers will now be able to take jobs with other employers when their first contracts are over, Kenney said. Previously, foreign workers could not change employers.

Kenney said he had no concerns about eliminating the requirement for the LMO, a document outlining evidence of a shortage in a particular category of worker and proof the employer had advertised in Canada for workers but got no response.

Kenney stressed he would rely on the provincial government to keep an eye on trends in construction employment to determine if the shortage turns into an oversupply of labour in those categories.

Kenney said he doesn't think the federal government will be "so keen" to open the doors that wide in other areas, including for unskilled temporary foreign workers.

Temporary foreign workers must have job offers and documents to prove they are qualified in a trade before getting work permits.

The new rules will help companies recruit in the U.S., where many construction workers remain unemployed, Kenney said. U.S. workers can work for three weeks and spend a week back home — a pattern common for many Canadians working in the oilsands.

But Gil McGowan, head of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said it's a mistake to eliminate the LMO, the one check in the system that protected Canadian access to such jobs.

"We're troubled by this decision, which eliminates the checks and balance," said McGowan.

Alberta's non-union contractors gain a big advantage under the new system, he said. Along with elimination of the LMO, Prime Minister Stephen Harper three months ago announced foreign workers can be paid up to 15 per cent less than the going Canadian wage.

But union employers must abide by the collective agreement, said McGowan.

"This will help make foreign workers the first choice not the last resort," said McGowan.

"This is not about a labour shortage, it's a low wage strategy. This is mostly designed to give companies access to a big pool of construction labour in the U.S. that is desperate for jobs."

McGowan noted that half the companies looking for construction workers do not have apprenticeship training programs, and said those companies should not be allowed to bring in temporary workers.

"They don't want long-term solutions, they want quick fixes, and that's what Harper will give them."

Some parts of Canada have not recovered from the 2008 recession and unemployment remains high in parts of Eastern Canada, he said. "The federal government should be ashamed of itself given the high unemployment in some provinces."

Stephen Khan, Alberta's minister for enterprise and advanced education, said he's pleased with the new rules, which will create a fast track for six occupations by eliminating paperwork and weeks of waiting involved to obtain the LMO.

"We are engaging industry" to take a bigger role in recruiting labour, he said. "They can identify what they need and who they want."

Khan said he's not concerned there is no check in the system to make sure Canadians get first shot at the jobs. The government will be guided by "internal metrics" about the job market, he said.

"We have to make sure we stay ahead of the curve," said Khan.

In a meeting Monday with the Journal editorial board, Kenney noted there is high unemployment among aboriginal youth and up to 14 per cent of immigrants are jobless or chronically underemployed.

"I think employers have to do a lot more about skill training," he said.

Kenney said he is not considering extending permanent residency to temporary foreign workers, since that would add another 180,000 people to the 280,000 annually allowed into the country.

"If we were to grant residency to all, that would be 400,000 and I don't think that is sustainable."

The Edmonton Journal, July 16 2012
Byline: Sheila Pratt

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