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Temporary work visas: the floodgates are still open

On Monday, the federal government announced changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, pretending that misuse by some employers had led to the flood of people into Canada on temporary work visas. Wrong.

The program has long been open to abuse and nothing substantive changed this week.

Karl Flecker, director of human rights and anti-racism at the Canadian Labour Congress, who has been studying the program for years, describes the changes as being “akin to putting up tattered plastic over a broken window – and it was the Conservative government that broke the window.”

Several aspects of the announcement make no material difference to what already exists in law but is not, in practice, followed or even monitored:

1.  A loophole that was opened up in April 2012, allowing employers to fast track visas and pay people less than the median wage has been “temporarily suspended,” according to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney. It could be brought back at any time under the guise of an “administrative efficiency.”

2.  The law already said the government can’t issue temporary visas if doing so will displace a Canadian worker. Asking employers to now sign a statement to that effect changes nothing, especially if applications are rubber stamped with minimal review.

3.  The law already required employers to use real job qualifications to justify the fact that they can’t find someone from Canada to do the job. The ability to speak Mandarin does not likely stack up as a bone fide job requirement to work at a mine in northern BC. The new rule that only English or French can be used as language requirements is a clumsy attempt to fix an abuse that could have been stopped under the existing system.

4.  Employers applying for temporary visas are now supposed to have a plan to shift to hiring members of the national workforce. After the department responsible for this program, HRSDC, has suffered one of the biggest government job cuts this past year and can hardly keep up with reviewing the basic applications, how are they supposed to review and monitor these new plans?

5.  And new powers to investigate and suspend employers for abuses? Who is going to carry out this work? See above, if it’s supposed to be HRSDC.

The reality is that the Conservative government has systematically increased the number of temporary work visas since coming to power in 2006:

* Reduced the requirement for employers to advertise for applicants from within Canada from 6 weeks to 14 days

* Opened offices in BC and Alberta to fast track employer applications for migrant workers using the so-called “Expedited Labour Market Opinion” (ELMO) program. Employer could access the fast lane for jobs that were placed on an “Occupations Under Pressure” list at the urging of employers.

* Later introduced the Accelerated Labour Market Opinion (ALMO) program (now “temporarily suspended”) to process employer applications in as little as 10 days and allow employers to pay 15% less than the median wage to *all* workers doing the “high-skilled” job for which temporary visas were sought. The discount is 5% for “low-skill” jobs.

* Allocated more than $84 million to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to speed up employer applications in 2007, 12 times more than was allocated that year to help permanent newcomers get their credentials recognized.

* Established an Employer Advisory Group to help design and usher in the changes. The group includes the Canadian Restaurant and Food Services Association, Canadian Tourism Human Resources Council, Canadian Construction Association, Canadian Federation of Independent Business, Canadian Trucking Alliance and the Petroleum Services Association of Canada.

* Published a handy guide for employers to apply for permits. No similar and accessible guide has ever been developed to help workers.

“No one is fooled into thinking the program is substantially different or better after the changes announced this week,” says Flecker.

Some employer groups made a show of being disappointed with the government announcement. It may well be crocodile tears. Kenney made a vague promise about future consultations. If the past is an indication, employer groups will be front and centre at those meetings, working for new “administrative changes” that serve their purposes.

Unless Canadians keep the pressure up, the most likely actual outcome is less information available to the public on how many people are coming to the country on temporary work visas and what they are doing.

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