How to fix the foreign worker program
TheStar.com – opinion/commentary – Stephen Harper must do more than crack down on errant businesses to defuse public anger over foreign workers.
Apr 22 2013. By: Carol Goar
The floodgate broke in a flash. All the doubts, suspicions and fears Canadians had been holding back for seven years came spilling out on April 6 when CBC News reported that the Royal Bank of Canada was replacing 45 of its long-time employees with foreign temporary workers.
As more facts filtered out, it became clear the broadcaster had misread the situation. RBC was not bringing in foreign workers; it was outsourcing Canadian jobs. A California-based contractor was handling the transfer. That company, iGATE Corp., brought in a team of trainers — only one under the foreign temporary workers program — to see what skills were needed and job shadow the employees who were losing their livelihood.
But the details got lost in a swirl of outrage, anxiety and disgust. If the biggest bank in the country — with a $7.5-billion profit last year — was shedding skilled workers, anyone was expendable. If a blue-chip financial institution was replacing its head-office staff with cheaper foreign workers, no one was safe.
The bank scrambled to apologize to its staff and clients and Canadians.
But the eyes of the nation had already turned to the prime minister. It was his responsibility to fix the mess and restore public confidence in the integrity of the job market.
Stephen Harper, who had brushed off complaints about foreign temporary workers throughout his tenure, turned on a dime. “We will reform this program,” he pledged in the House of Commons. “We will make sure it sticks to its purpose, which is to provide temporary help when there is an absolute skills shortage.”
When he wants action, it happens. Within weeks, one of his ministers, probably Jim Flaherty, who now is drafting his budget implementation bill, will announce a series of changes to the 11-year-old foreign temporary workers program.
No doubt Ottawa will crack down on employers who bring in foreign workers to replace their Canadian employees (which existing rules already prohibit). But it will take more than that to mollify a roiled public.
At minimum, the government must:
Require employers to demonstrate that they have conducted a serious search for Canadian applicants before permitting them to bring in foreign workers. Before Harper took power, employers had to advertise a job vacancy for six weeks in their local market before applying to bring in a foreign worker. His government cut it to two weeks.
Revoke the two-tiered wage policy brought in by Human Resources Minister Diane Finley in 2012. It allows employers to pay foreign workers 15-per-cent below the prevailing wage. Not only does that violate the Charter of Rights, which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race, national or ethnic origin, it also is a deliberate inducement to business to hire abroad. If the aim of the program is address a genuine economic need, there is no need or rationale for a wage discount.
Cut the intake of foreign workers to the level required to meet acute labour shortages. There is no scarcity of Canadians willing to pump gas, drive trucks, work at convenience stores or fast-food outlets. When all the occupations for which there is a sufficient supply of domestic labour are eliminated, there will be no demonstrable need to bring in 330,000 foreign workers a year.
Toughen the penalties for employers who abuse the program.
Enforce the rules. If the risk of getting caught is negligible, employers will keep cutting costs at the expense of hard-working Canadians.
Harper could go farther, creating employment for sidelined Canadians. He could impose an application fee on employers seeking to hire abroad, then use the money to finance training programs for Canadians. Or he could stipulate that any employer who brings in a foreign temporary worker must train a Canadian to take over by the end of the contract.
Any move to restrict the inflow of the foreign temporary workers program will be resisted by employers, particularly restaurateurs, owners of fast-food outlets and local entrepreneurs. The lobbying has already begun.
But Harper has a restive electorate on his hands. His government’s job-creation record is weak. And the RBC incident is the second controversy this spring involving the temporary foreign workers program. (The first one was in B.C., in which Ottawa allowed HD Mining International to bring in 201 Chinese coal miners on the grounds there were no qualified applicants in Canada.)
The prime minister can’t turn back globalization or control market forces. But he can — and must — convince voters he is on their side in a brutally competitive world.
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