Federal program being misused?

The controversy over the outsourcing of dozens of Canadian jobs by the Royal Bank of Canada has put the spotlight on the much bigger issue of how Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program is being utilized.

The Alberta Federation of Labour added its voice to the debate Tuesday by calling for a review of the federal program because of concerns the program is being used to replace Canadians workers and drive down wages.

There appears to be legitimate cause for concern. The program was originally intended to assist employers in hiring temporary foreign workers to fill high-skill jobs because of the shortage of skilled workers already in Canada. Instead, the AFL points out that since the program was announced a year ago, more than 2,400 permits have been approved to hire foreign workers for low-skill service industry jobs.

The federal Accelerated-Labour Market Opinion (ALMO) program allows employers to pay foreign workers up to 15 per cent less than Canadian workers are paid. It also speeds up the process of hiring foreign workers so it can be done within 10 days.

It doesn’t require a degree in rocket science to figure out that being able to pay workers 15 per cent less is going to be an attractive lure for business operators. And it appears businesses are taking full advantage of the opportunity.

“The percentage of ALMO approvals for businesses that largely employ low-skilled workers appears to be in direct contradiction to the stated parameters of the program,” AFL president Gil McGowan wrote in a letter to federal auditor general Michael Ferguson.

In a Canadian Press story in Wednesday’s Herald, McGowan noted that documents obtained through the Access to Information Act show that employers using the ALMO program include fast-food restaurants, convenience stores and gas stations.

“Are we supposed to believe that these are ‘high-skill’ employment opportunities?” McGowan asked.

Not likely.

Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, defended the federal program, saying many small- and medium-size employers need temporary foreign workers to fill jobs, and the need is most pressing in Western Canada and in rural communities across Canada.

“I take it as a positive that businesses of all skill levels are able to access this expedited process,” said Kelly. “Our members really need those expedited processes.”

The issue, however, is are those workers preventing Canadians from landing those jobs?

McGowan suggested a couple of ways employers could deal with the difficulty in finding workers – they can either offer higher wages or the federal government can increase immigration. Of course, offering higher wages isn’t an attractive option for businesses, and for those just squeaking by, it might not be an option at all.

But the bottom line is it appears the federal temporary foreign worker program is not being used the way it was intended, and that warrants an investigation.

Lethbridge Herald Opinion, Thursday, Apr 11 2013