Five years of dealing with temporary foreign workers affected Yessy Byl in a way she did not expect. There were the stories, from the more than 1,000 people she spoke with in her job as a labour advocate, of neglect and mistreatment – overtime not paid, commitments not honoured, hefty "hiring fees" deducted from weekly cheques. And yet many of them wouldn't make a formal complaint for fear they'd be fired just for speaking out.
It left her deflated and disillusioned. "My faith in this country has been badly shaken," she says. "I have to remind myself: There are some good employers."
For Ms. Byl, and many other critics, Canada's growing numbers of temporary foreign workers have raised important questions about the kind of country we are becoming, and how a nation that has long welcomed immigrants is establishing a burgeoning second class of labour, devoid of many of the rights to democratic participation and workplace choice other Canadians enjoy.
As Canadian employers struggle to address a burgeoning labour shortage, temporary foreign workers have become a pillar of the economy – there are now more than 300,000 here, triple the number a decade ago. Visiting workers once associated with harvest time in Canada's orchards and tobacco fields now turn up everywhere from fast-food chains and abattoirs to the Alberta oil sands.
Anticipating another surge in demand, the Harper government has, in the past few weeks, formalized a series of changes to speed up the program. Now able to bring in people with just 10 days notice and to pay them 15-per-cent less than a Canadian would earn, employers have responded with joy. They still must prove they can't fill a job any other way, but others see deeper significance in the trend and are holding their breath.
Howard Ramos, who studies social justice and equity at Dalhousie University, says he is "really worried that Canada as a country is beginning to move away from immigration."
If the commitment to bringing in people who are not bound to a particular job and have more rights really is being eroded, he says, the change in direction is unprecedented and will have an impact that is "bad for the long-term future of Canadian nation-building."
Ken Lewenza, national president of the CAW, agrees. He says Ottawa's new rules are "an assault not just on foreign workers. They are an assault on Canada and what we stand for."
"There's got to be a larger conversation," he says, "about whether it is right of Canada and employers to exploit workers." One CAW local discovered that 30 Thai and Mexican fish-plant workers were being housed in just two three-bedroom homes in Wheatley, Ont. But they were too frightened to speak out, worried they'd lose the ability to work in Canada.
Canada needs people
There is little question that Canada needs people. Virtually every sector of the economy is forecasting shortages: The information, communications and technology industry needs 106,000 people in the next five years. Mining needs 112,000 by 2021. Construction needs 319,000 by 2020. Alberta, with a population of 3.8 million, forecasts a need for 607,000 new workers in the next decade, and expects to fall 114,000 short.
Many experts argue that without temporary foreign workers the predicament would be even worse – that visitors enable economic growth. They already fill many of the gaps even though they are allowed to work for no more than four years, and are severely restricted in other jobs they can take if fired.
In 2008, at the height of the last boom, 190,768 such workers entered Canada. Last year, despite a one-fifth rise in national unemployment rates, the number of foreign entries did not plunge – in fact, it rose by precisely one person, to 190,769.
Experiences with temporary employees in Europe and the United States show that they can bring fundamental change, positive and negative. Germany's famed "guest workers" were instrumental in making the country an industrial powerhouse. Yet elsewhere in Europe, their presence has brought problems. In France, for example, race riots of the past decade were blamed in part on the ghettoization of overseas workers whose secondary legal and societal status fomented anger. In the U.S., too, the use of foreign workers has stoked a national debate over how to integrate needed workers into society.
Supporters of Canada's recent changes contend the changes actually protect workers. To achieve a quick decision on bringing in outsiders, a company must agree to random audits to ensure they are following the rules. If they fail, and don't correct the problem, they can be banned from bringing in more workers for two years.
"The consequences are very significant" – and being blacklisted could "make you lose a competitive advantage," says Loretta Bouwmeester, a Calgary employment and labour lawyer.
Not only are companies now conducting internal audits to make doubly sure they are following the rules, she adds, it's so expensive to find people and get them here (employers often must cover travel costs) that "there's still an incentive to look in Canada first."
Enforcement has been lax
But critics say Ottawa and the provinces have been so lax in enforcing current rules that employers no longer fear being caught for underpaying workers, charging them illegal fees or doing an insufficient job of canvassing for Canadian labour.
In an e-mail response, a representative for Human Resources and Skills Development Canada declined to confirm that more money will be spent on auditing, but did say that resources within the program will be shifted "to focus on post-application compliance."
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, says there is no question the visitors are cost-effective for those who hire them. In fact, he argues, "they're putting downward pressure on wages when all the economic indicators suggest that wages should be going up."
Anecdotal evidence, from small contractors, suggests that's already happening, as well-paid Alberta crews are having trouble competing.
But for now, at least, paycheques are still getting fatter: adjusting for inflation, wages in Alberta have risen 12 per cent since 2005, according to figures provided by ATB. Across Canada, they are up 7.5 per cent.
And in Alberta, some believe any downward pressure could actually be helpful.
"I don't think it will distort the labour market – and at very worst, the wages in oil-and- gas extraction could handle coming down a notch or two," said Todd Hirsch, senior economist for Edmonton-based ATB Financial.
Globe and Mail, Sun May 6 2012
Byline: Nathan Vanderklippe
Union leaders in B.C. and Alberta are upset with changes to the Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW) program that reduces the time it takes for employers to hire skilled trades people, but the Merit Contractors Association is applauding the federal initiative.
"This is a complete sell out to employers, who want access to cheap labour" said Tom Sigurdson, executive director of the B.C. and Yukon Territory Building and Construction Trades Council.
"These are vulnerable workers, many unable to speak English and unwilling to complain about unsafe workplaces and abuses to workplace rights."
Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development (HRSD) Diane Finley announced on April 25 that the federal government intends to make the TFW program more responsive to skilled labour shortages.
"Our government is looking at ways to make sure businesses recruit from the domestic workforce before hiring temporary foreign workers, while also reducing the paper burden and speeding up the processing time for employers that have short-term skilled labour needs," said Finley during a tour of Advance Engineered Products Ltd.'s manufacturing facility in Nisku, Alberta.
Employers with a strong track record will receive an Accelerated-Labour Market Opinion (ALMO) within 10 business days.
If approved, it will allow them to hire temporary foreign workers in high-skill occupations, including the skilled trades.
A Labour Market Opinion (LMO) assesses the potential impact that hiring a foreign worker will have on Canada's labour market.
According to Sigurdson, the changes to the program are part of an overall employer's strategy to reduce wages by increasing the supply of cheap exploitable labour.
Sigurdson said employers are complaining that the skills shortage is hurting their ability to proceed with construction projects, but the last survey by the trades council showed unemployment at about 25 per cent for Building Trades unions.
"In B.C. today, we can supply workers for every single trade," he said.
"There is no skills shortage, instead we have a wage shortage."
Alberta union leaders agree.
"We have said all along that the TFW program was being used to drive down the wages paid to Canadian workers and the federal government confirmed this in writing," said Nancy Furlong, secretary treasurer of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL).
Furlong pointed out that changes to the TFW program include a new wage structure, which provides employers with greater downward flexibility.
Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) said wages that are up to 15 per cent below the average pay for an occupation will be accepted in specific regions.
Furlong argued the reduction in both wages and the processing time of temporary foreign workers will exacerbate the unemployment problem in Canada.
Sigurdson said the wage reduction will only open the door to further abuse of this vulnerable group.
In addition Sigurdson said the changes to the TFW program will have a negative impact on apprenticeship training.
"Where is the incentive to hire apprentices and invest in training when employers can get access to cheap foreign labour?" he asked.
"The government says it wants to support apprentices but instead is willing to provide the training opportunities to TFWs."
Despite these objections, Merit Alberta is very happy with the recent changes.
"While we await an examination of the specific operating rules for ALMO, we are encouraged by this and other recently announced initiatives by the federal government with respect to addressing skills shortages across the country," said Stephen Kushner, president of Merit Contractors Association in Alberta.
"This is but one component of a broad range of domestic and foreign solutions to long term human resource challenges facing our industry."
HRSDC and Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) jointly administer the TFW program.
HRSDC is responsible for issuing Labour Market Opinions to employers, while CIC is responsible for issuing work permits to temporary foreign workers.
The new Accelerated-Labour Market Opinion has the following features:
a simplified, online application process;
faster and timelier processing for employers with a good history;
risk-based and random in-depth compliance reviews of employers after LMOs are issued;
enhanced automation to reduce paperwork, and improve capacity to track compliance and share information; and
call centre support for employers.
Employers will have to consent to post-LMO reviews to verify compliance with TFW program requirements.
This involves making a reasonable effort to recruit from the domestic labour force, as well as providing wages and working conditions that are consistent with Canadian standards.
Last month, CIC announced plans to reduce the work experience requirement for eligible temporary foreign workers applying to stay in the country permanently.
The proposed changes to the Canadian Experience Class will reduce the requirement to 12 months of full-time experience down from the previous 24 months.
The change would make it easier for skilled tradespersons to become permanent residents, since their work is often project-based and can be seasonal.
Journal of Commerce, Tues May 2 2012
Byline: Richard Gilbert
The federal Temporary Foreign Worker Program has become a necessary evil, fraught with so many troubling issues that we must hold our nose while applauding changes announced to it this week by Human Resources and Skills Development Minister Diane Finley. Effective immediately, companies with an unblemished two-year history of hiring temporary workers can get expedited government approval — a so-called Labour Market Opinion (LMO) — within 10 business days.
The Alberta government welcomed the changes, with reservations. “The Temporary Foreign Worker Program is not the be-all and end-all. It is a way to get workers when we need them,” said Alberta Human Services Minister Dave Hancock. But the real key, he said, is residency. “The permanence is an important factor . . . . Ideally, you want somebody who will actually come to stay.”
Unlike the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which limits a workers’ stay to four years, the Alberta government would rather see changes to the Alberta Immigrant Nominee Program (AINP), which allows individuals, along with their spouse or common-law partner and dependent children, to apply for a permanent resident visa through Citizenship and Immigration Canada, a federal department. It is a more human approach. Under AINP, the province is allowed to nominate 5,000 such workers. It wants to see that cap either doubled or removed entirely. Ottawa is the final arbiter on all applications.
Until the AINP is expanded, the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) remains the less desirable option to combat labour shortages. Alberta has long complained that the four-year cap on how long a temporary worker can stay in this country penalizes Canadian companies. After providing skills training, and often helping them with language fluency, companies are then forced to essentially kick these employees out of the country, thus enabling other nations to benefit from the training we provide.
Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman, who comes from an immigrant family, also argues that the TFWP can be cruel. Although spouses and dependants can come under the TFWP, they are often left behind because of the uncertainty of the labour situation. Sherman says money is often sent back home to support families left behind, meaning that it leaves the Canadian economy.
The new TFWP also allows companies to pay workers 15 per cent below the average wage for a job in a specific region, as long as the wages are consistent with Canadian workers, based on Statistics Canada figures. That, too, is problematic. As Nancy Furlong, secretary-treasurer of the Alberta Federation of Labour notes, it could discourage Canadians from other provinces coming to a more expensive place like Alberta.
“They’re trying to drive down salaries and wages and frankly I don’t think that’s the job of our government to take one side, that being business, and find them ways of making money off the backs of citizens of the country by allowing them to drive wages down.”
It’s past time to address the flaws in this useful program that helps bring in the kind of workers we need, only to kick them out once they’ve settled in.
Calgary Herald, Fri Apr 27 2012
EDMONTON - Labour groups are stepping up their attack on changes to regulations for temporary foreign workers, saying the adjustments will reduce wages for Canadians, make it tougher for union shops to bid for work and allow companies to cut training of local employees.
"Harper is giving a go-ahead to employers to tap into vulnerable foreign workers to drive down Canadian wages," said Jim Stanford, head economist for the Canadian Auto Workers.
A federal spokeswoman said the measures, which allow workers to be paid less than the going Canadian wage, would not disadvantage workers in hot labour markets.
"Regional differences will be taken into account," said Alyson Queen of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.
On Wednesday, the federal government said it would speed up approval times for companies to get skilled workers into Canada if local labour can't be found. It also promised better protections for such workers once they're in the country.
But it also said employers would be allowed to pay foreign workers up to 15 per cent less than the prevailing local wage.
Because foreign workers in union shops must be paid the negotiated wage, Gil McGowan of the Alberta Federation of Labour said the provision gives non-union contractors the ability to undercut union contractors.
"What happened yesterday is really about giving non-union construction contractors the upper hand in bidding for work in the oilsands sector," he said.
About half the construction work in Alberta already goes to non-union shops, McGowan said.
He also suggested that increasing the flow of skilled workers from other countries will reduce the need for employers to spend money on training and apprenticeships for Canadians.
Ron Genereux, vice-president of construction for Suncor Energy, said the wage provisions would only potentially apply to a very small number of workers. He said more than 90 per cent of oilsands construction already goes to unionized employees.
The reforms are necessary, he added.
"It was taking us six to nine months to get people here. A project duration is typically 24 to 36 months. If you waste 10 months of that 30 months, you're creating major schedule (problems) and resulting cost challenges on your project."
Employers have no cost incentive to hire from outside Canada, he said.
"Foreign workers are the most expensive workers we've got."
Queen said Ottawa will monitor local labour conditions to make sure proposed wages aren't artificially low. She also said having fewer staff processing applications means more resources will be available for monitoring and enforcement.
She noted the new measures contain provisions for on-site visits from inspectors and the power to compel records, with the co-operation of provincial governments.
Both McGowan and Stanford doubt the government's ability to determine a fair wage in a volatile economy such as Alberta's.
"For years now, people at Statistics Canada have said they don't have adequate labour market information to make this program work," said McGowan. "With the deep cuts to StatsCan, it's going to be even more difficult for them to figure out what exactly is the prevailing wage."
Stanford said all Canadian workers are threatened by the new program, not just labourers in the oilsands.
"These measures that were announced (Wednesday) will be used to staff hotels in Ontario. They'll be used for light manufacturing in British Columbia. This is part of a national low-wage strategy."
Andrew Jackson, an economist for the Canadian Labour Congress, suggested the government would have been better off to focus on coming reforms to immigration legislation that will speed applications from those with in-demand skills.
"A lot of employers would rather have an immigration system that responds more quickly," he said. "It's puzzling and disturbing to me that (the government) is expanding this back-door channel."
Winnipeg Free Press, Thurs Apr 26 2012
Byline: Bob Weber, Canadian Press
NISKU – Alberta businesses, frustrated by red tape and delays in hiring temporary foreign workers, got a break Wednesday from the federal government.
Human Resources and Skills Development Minister Diane Finley announced that companies with an unblemished two-year history of hiring temporary workers from abroad will be allowed to apply for fast-tracked hiring permission.
"Employers with a strong track record in need of high-skilled workers will be able to obtain a Labour Market Opinion (LMO) within 10 business days," Finley said. "Even better news, this is effective immediately."
The Alberta Federation of Labour, however, said the announcement isn't all good news.
The new rules will result in lower wages for skilled workers and aggravate problems associated with a temporary foreign workforce, including people staying on illegally after their contracts expire, said AFL secretary-treasurer Nancy Furlong.
"If there is an ongoing need for workers, why not bring them in as permanent citizens?" asked Furlong, noting that labour groups were not invited to consultations over the changes.
Until now, companies had to pay workers what is known as the "prevailing wage." But that requirement now changes in the high-skill trades category.
"For added flexibility, wages up to 15 per cent below the average wage rate will be accepted so long as it can be clearly demonstrated the same wages are being paid to Canadian workers," Finley said at Wednesday's news conference in Nisku.
Furlong argued that 15-per-cent rule "interferes with supply and demand forces in the economy."
But getting that break on wages is a key factor to Ron Buchhorn, whose company runs a manufacturing business in Alberta and desperately needs welders and heavy-duty mechanics.
"Manufacturing cannot compete with wages in the primary industries — oilsands and mining and potash," said Buchhorn, vice-president of human resources for Advanced Engineering Products. His company is looking for 80 skilled workers for its operations here and in Saskatchewan.
In Alberta, "we can't compete with fly-in" work camps around Fort McMurray, which pay high wages and cover housing costs for workers, he added.
The company, which received the first speedy LMO on Wednesday, has looked for workers in Ontario and the Maritimes, but can't find the people it needs. These new rules "will enable us to increase our manufacturing capacity and increase service so we'll be more successful."
Under federal rules, employers must apply for LMOs before they can hire a foreign worker. The company must prove it has made an effort to recruit locally and within the country. If that was not successful, the company must then apply to Service Canada for permission to hire someone for a two-year period from outside the country.
But the process to get an LMO has been taking months, which is too long for many companies, says David MacLean, spokesman for the Alberta Enterprise Group, a business group that lobbies on economic issues.
"The temporary foreign worker process, as it stands, was too burdensome, too cumbersome, too complicated and there was too much red tape," said MacLean. "It just wasn't working to meet the needs in this economy."
The new rules apply to skilled labour categories only and the federal government expects to process about 150,000 temporary foreign worker applications from across the country this year, said Finley.
Bill Stewart of Merit Contractors Association calls the changes a step in the right direction, but just one piece of the puzzle to solve the looming labour shortage. His organization of non-union construction companies is eager to see details about how companies qualify to get on the preferred list.
"Recruiting internationally is not the first choice for construct industry as it's not cheap," he said.
Stewart says the merit contractors are also heartened by the efforts of federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who is looking at changing immigration rules to let more skilled tradesmen into the country. Only a fraction of the 250,000 immigrants admitted annually are skilled workers, Kenney said, and that has to change.
Finley said the new system will cut paperwork for businesses since they'll be able to apply online. New compliance monitoring will ensure companies are treating workers fairly. She also said businesses who violate the rules will have their ability to hire temporary foreign workers suspended for two years.
Calgary Herald, Wed Apr 25 2012
Byline: Sarah O'Donnell and Sheila Pratt
Changes to TFW program will allow employers to slash wages
The federal government has put corporate profits ahead of the needs of Canadian workers with the changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program announced today, says Alberta's largest labour group. "We have said all along that the TFW program was being used to drive down the wages paid to Canadian workers and, today, the federal government confirmed this in writing," says Nancy Furlong, Secretary Treasurer of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) which represents 145,000 workers. The background document attached to the government's media release says: "A new wage structure will also be introduced to provide employers with greater flexibility. Wages that are up to 15 per cent below the average wage for an occupation in a specific region will be accepted." Furlong says: "This government claims it believes in the free market, but doesn't want to allow the free market to apply to workers and their wages. Instead, it interferes to drive down wages in the interest of its corporate paymasters." She said she was disappointed, but not surprised, to see that these changes came after consultation with employers. "The Harper government didn't even bother to consult with Canadian workers. They consulted only with employers, many of whom are foreign-owned. We asked to take part in these consultations, but they weren't interested," says Furlong. "We think Canadians and Albertans should be concerned with this blatant disregard for the needs of citizens and how the federal government has put corporate profits ahead of its own people. "There are 1.4 million Canadians looking for work. Giving employers quicker access to foreign workers and allowing employers to slash wages by up to 15 per cent means most of them will remain out of work. That means they will continue to be a strain on Employment Insurance or government support programs, instead of working and paying taxes. The government is telling these Canadians that they are not needed," she says. "In a report last year titled Impact of the TFW Program on the Labour Market in Alberta, the provincial government said the TFW program is bad for our economy. It also leaves vulnerable foreign workers open to all kinds of abuse. So why are we expanding it? We will soon have 100,000 TFWs in this province. How many do we need? "The real solution to the labour shortage in Alberta is to follow the advice of former premier Peter Lougheed and set a more reasonable pace of development in the oil sands. We hope the newly elected Redford government is listening to him," says Furlong.
MEDIA CONTACT: Nancy Furlong, AFL Secretary Treasurer, 780-483-3012 or 780-720-8945
At least one Alberta group isn't happy with today's changes to federal temporary foreign worker laws.
The Alberta Federation of Labour says lowering the wages for the workers makes Alberta's workforce less competitive and essentially steals jobs from the province.
Secretary Treasurer Nancy Furlong says the rules help big corporations save money at the expense of the unemployed.
"They're going to get a discount. They'll be able to bring foreign workers in and pay them less than what they would get if they were Canadian and living in this province, which is just a terrible decision and will drive wages down and keep them down," says Furlong.
The AFL wants to see a more reasonable development pace in the oil sands and better training for temporary foreign workers so they can get their tickets and stay in Canada.
630AM CHED, Wed Apr 25 2012
Reducing immigration barriers is long overdue
Immigration is the federal department most likely to be viewed as the stodgiest and burdened with the most cumbersome processes. This is not necessarily a reflection of how the department operates, but it's a public perception that comes from hearing of the lengthy wait times, stacks of documents and bottomless quantities of patience required of those who are either trying to sponsor a family member to come to Canada or are immigrating here themselves.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is doing a bang-up job of dispelling that perception and showing just how flexible the federal government can be in meeting the demands of an economy that's just picking up momentum, coming out of the doldrums of 2008.
Kenney has announced the establishment of a new queue for skilled tradespeople, which will streamline things and make it easier for foreigners working in the trades to come to Canada and help fill shortages in the labourstarved resource-based and construction industries.
The new queue is long overdue, for as Kenney himself told the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, "in the past, it was virtually impossible for skilled tradespeople to get in through our rigid economic programs at the federal level."
In fact, of the 48,678 people who came to Canada through the skilled worker program in 2010, skilled tradespeople made up only three per cent. That just goes to show how the barriers need to come tumbling down.
Lack of advanced Englishlanguage skills and the absence of a post-secondary degree meant people were often passed over, but all that will, thankfully, change by the end of this year. A "workable level of English," according to Kenney, will be all that is required as far as language fluency, while the 100-point grid typically used to assess a foreign worker's admissibility will be revamped for tradespeople.
The Alberta Federation of Labour is concerned that loosening the requirements for the admission of foreign tradespeople will divert interest and incentive for the next crop of Canadian-born tradespeople. However, one of the reasons the shortage exists is that Canadian youth are traditionally encouraged to go to university and pursue careers in the professions. There is a pervasive, if contradictory, attitude among Canadians that society couldn't possibly function without skilled tradespeople, but they'd rather see their own children eschew a future in the trades.
If Canadians aren't going to enter the trades in large enough numbers, employers have to look elsewhere because the work simply needs to get done, and someone qualified has to do it. In fact, part of Kenney's new plan includes setting up a list of qualified job seekers for prospective employers to peruse.
Kenney's reforms are a perfect example of the federal government being keenly attuned to the needs of the market. Instead of clinging to some stifling bureaucratic status quo, the Immigration department is responding accordingly to help industry, with the ultimate goal of promoting and maintaining the health and vigour of the economy.
Calgary Herald, Sun Apr 15 2012
With Alberta's economy steaming ahead, industry leaders are welcoming a new federal immigration program designed to ease a shortage of skilled tradespeople.
The federal government announced Tuesday it is creating a separate queue for foreign tradespeople in an effort to combat labour shortages in construction and resource-based industries.
The new stream for tradespeople will place a greater emphasis on their practical training and work experience, rather than formal education.
"In the past it was virtually impossible for skilled tradespeople to get in through our rigid economic programs at the federal level," Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said in a speech at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce.
"And this meant that the Polish welder . . . American tradespeople couldn't get in through the skilled worker program.
"They didn't have a postsecondary degree."
Foreign workers are assessed against a 100-point grid examining several factors, including proficiency in English or French, education, work experience and whether they have arranged employment.
Proficiency in one of Canada's official languages remains important for skilled workers, said Kenney, but there will be more flexibility for tradespeople.
"You don't need university-level English to weld pipe. You need a workable level of English," he said.
Kenney said he hopes the new program, with a revamped grid for tradespeople, will be in place by the end of 2012.
The minister estimated the program may only see a few thousand applicants at first, but expects that number to increase. "It will probably start as a fairly small stream," Kenney told reporters afterward. "It could grow into the tens of thousands."
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers welcomed the news, saying the industry is expecting to spend $55 billion on capital projects in 2012. "It's going to require a lot of skilled labour to address this growth," spokesman Travis Davies said.
Hiring Canadiantrained workers and increasing mobility between provinces are favoured methods of finding workers, but Davies said those measures alone won't meet the industry's needs.
"We have to look beyond our borders," he said.
Alberta's largest labour organization, however, is concerned the scheme is moving in the wrong direction.
"The real question is whether we should be opening the floodgates to tradespeople from outside the country when we have 1.4 million Canadians looking for work," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour. "We're concerned that giving employers quicker access to foreign journeyman is going to remove the incentive for construction employers to take on Canadian apprentices and train the next generation of Canadian tradespeople."
Canada admitted 48,678 people via the skilled worker program in 2010, but the government estimates only about three per cent of them are skilled tradespeople.
Overall, Canada has allowed an average of 254,000 permanent residents into the country per year since 2006.
The announcement Tuesday is the latest in a series of reforms to the immigration system recently unveiled by the federal government.
While the oil and gas sector may be a beneficiary of Tuesday's announcement, it's not the only sector concerned about a labour crunch.
"Labour shortages are the biggest economic drag on Alberta," said Ben Brunnen, chief economist at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce.
"The challenges our members are having are attracting and maintaining good employees. The demand in Alberta is across the board."
Dawn Farrell, president and CEO of TransAlta, said finding skilled workers is "a greater and greater problem almost every day" for the power company.
While TransAlta struggles to find workers in Alberta, it has plants in the U.S. with high rates of unemployment, said Farrell. "We're working together with the federal government on how to address that," she said.
All of the government's recent reforms are aimed at better matching foreign-trained workers with jobs here and reducing the time it takes to process their applications, said Kenney.
Part of the government's plan is creating a job bank of qualified applicants that prospective employers could use to find workers.
The government also plans to hire an outside company to evaluate the credentials of foreign skilled worker applicants in licensed professions, such as medicine or law.
The idea, Kenney said, is to give would-be newcomers an idea of how their credentials stack up against someone with a similar Canadian education. "We can give those applicants an indication of whether they have a better than even chance of getting their licence in Canada," he said.
Calgary immigration lawyer Raj Sharma said the dedicated stream for tradespeople should help address labour shortages.
But Sharma added he's concerned the government is placing too high an emphasis on matching newcomers with specific occupations.
Demand for certain jobs and professions can come and go, Sharma said and added it's also important to focus on an immigrant's work ethic and ability to adapt. "Looking at attributes, rather than a job description, is probably better," he said.
To speed up processing times for skilled worker applications, Kenney said it was necessary for the government to eliminate a huge backlog and close the files of anyone who applied before the end of February 2008.
Opponents have criticized the move, which may affect up to 300,000 people, but Kenney said Canada was losing too many skilled workers who opted to settle elsewhere instead of waiting years to get into Canada.
"The best and brightest were choosing not to come here," he said.
Sharma called the action a "tragedy," saying it unfairly penalized applicants who tried coming to Canada legally instead of jumping the queue with illegitimate refugee claims or by sneaking into Canada.
"It's not their fault (the government) couldn't process. These people put their lives on hold," he said.
Calgary Herald, Wed Apr 11 2012
Byline: Jason Van Rassel