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