Lobby continues to lift foreign labour ban

Newfoundland minister says federal government being unfair to businesses

Bonnie Belec bbelec@thetelegram.com
Published on May 12, 2014

Businesses which rely on foreign workers to keep their doors open shouldn’t be punished because of allegations that other companies are abusing the program, says the province’s minister of Advanced Education and Skills.

“You take the fast food industry in Labrador West. It is going to be severely and negatively affected because of one major player right across Canada including here in this province that has abused the system in my opinion,” Kevin O’Brien told The Telegram Friday afternoon.

It’s been two weeks since the federal government suspended its temporary foreign workers program in the food services industry amid allegations of exploitive labour practices across the country and accusations that immigrants are displacing Canadians who want to work.

O’Brien, and the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses (CFIB), as well as some other provinces, are lobbying Ottawa to reinstate the program until after a review of it is done.

“The federal government, based upon their assessment of the data and information that came forward to the minister was so severe he decided to suspend the program, and my point to him is fine enough, suspend the ones who have abused it, but don’t negatively impact the ones that haven’t. It’s not fair to the rest. That’s my opinion,” he said.

“We are on it now to see if we can come to some kind of compromise until they figure it out, because people’s visas will come due and they’ll have to go back to their native countries, which affects their possible immigration to Canada and the businesses employing them,” O’Brien said.

Under the program, employers must first make an attempt to find qualified Canadian workers before applying for a labour market opinion —  called an LMO — in order to hire someone from abroad.

Companies are required to place ads on the federal government’s online job bank and prove they’ve made other attempts to find Canadian employees.

In January the program came under scrutiny in Labrador as the Canada Border Services Agency began an investigation into allegations by temporary foreign workers that they were forced into overcrowded living conditions.

In 2012 the program was questioned in St. John’s after Guatemalan chicken catchers living in the city complained saying they weren’t getting paid what the employer originally promised, and they were living in a mould-infested apartment.

A story by The Canadian Press says the temporary foreign worker program had about 100,000 people in it in 2002. There are about 338,000 now working across the country.  

According to information provided to The Telegram by the Department of Advanced Education and Skills, Citizenship and Immigration Canada reported there were 2,552 Temporary Foreign Workers in Newfoundland and Labrador in 2012.

While the numbers haven’t been published for 2013, the department expects the number to be around 3,000.

CFIB representatives met with federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney Wednesday to express their members’ displeasure with the Ottawa’s decision. They will meet with him again next week to provide recommendations.

Vaughn Hammond, CFIB’s director of provincial affairs for Newfoundland and Labrador, told The Telegram Friday afternoon that the program is needed in the province.

“There are times we cannot find people regardless of what we do. We can wage raises, offer benefits, do what is necessary and members are still not getting the applicants required (across the country),” he said.

“There’s a need in Corner Brook, Deer Lake, Clarenville, Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Lab City for temporary foreign workers because there are businesses that simply can’t find the workers to keep their businesses going,” said Hammond.

He said CFIB members have told Kenney the labour shortages are real and have asked the federal minister to reinstate the program while the review is ongoing.

Hammond said the CFIB understands where the minister is coming from, but businesses can’t wait months for a resolution.

He said businesses recognize the program has challenges which need to be addressed, but to echo the words of O’Brien, Hammond said not every company should be punished because of the allegations against a few.

“That is what 85 per cent of our members have said. Our members are quite upset about it. A few isolated allegations that haven’t been proven in any form, and what they’ve done is come out and painted the whole sector with this brush that they are abusing the program,” said Hammond.

In the meantime, O’Brien said he has written Kenney and has been involved with a series of conference calls with other provincial and territorial ministers who share the same concerns.

He said they are expecting to meet in July, to address common issues, but he said he’s hoping the suspension will be lifted before that.