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Updated: Wed, 23 Jul 2014 05:00:00 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Temporary Foreign Workers: Businesses needing high-skilled workers sideswiped by changes



Employment Minister Jason Kenney will be responding "shortly" to the provinces' counter-offer to the Canada Job Grant which the government wants in place on April 1. Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press

Employment Minister Jason Kenney will be responding "shortly" to the provinces' counter-offer to the Canada Job Grant which the government wants in place on April 1. Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press

Canadian employers who use the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to hire high-skilled workers say they have been sideswiped by changes intended to curb alleged abuses of the program by businesses who employ low-skilled workers in the fast-food sector.

Employers must now pay $1,000 for every temporary foreign worker they want to hire and pass a more rigorous Labour Market Impact Assessment test to prove the need to hire a foreign worker over a Canadian one, under new rules announced in June. The government introduced a $275 fee last year but there was no fee prior to April 2013.

Representatives in the film and TV industry were recently told work permits for foreign actors and directors would be issued in a timely manner, while employers who hire foreign musicians were exempted from the new rules. Employers looking to hire low-skilled workers in the seafood industry, however, have had no such luck.

Groups in the tourism, tech and business community are also complaining they have been inadvertently targeted by the changes announced by Employment Minister Jason Kenney and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander.

David Lynn, the president and CEO at Canada West Ski Areas Association, told CBC News he wrote to Kenney after his members were "blindsided" by the new rules.

"The number of changes and the magnitude of those changes shocked most people in the business community," Lynn said from Whistler on Tuesday.

"We feel the government should deal directly with people that are abusing the program and not institute a series of draconian changes that impact all of the people adversely, including those people who use the program responsibly."

According to Lynn, his members hire approximately 500 temporary foreign workers over a typical ski season. The $1,000 fee is effectively putting at risk an industry which is already struggling to break even. 

In a letter to his members, Lynn said he asked Kenney to consider the "major adverse impact" the new rules are having on the ski and tourism industries in Western Canada.

"We strongly urge the government to consider modifications to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to accommodate the unique needs of our industry.

"Specifically, we require the ability to utilize this program to hire seasonal workers, at industry-level wages, and without the burden of high fees and administrative barriers."

Lynn said he has yet to receive an official response from Kenney.

'Serious economic impact'   

Under the new rules, the government has promised to process applications within 10 business days for employers who want to hire high-skilled, high-wage workers for four months or less a year.

Whether a job is considered high-skilled or low-skilled is no longer determined by a standardized list of occupations in the labour market but by whether the position falls above or below the provincial median hourly wage, which currently ranges from a low of $17.26 in P.E.I. to a high of $32.53 in the Northwest Territories.

While the government has said the new system is "more objective and accurate," Lynn said there is some "ambiguity" around that.

"There are concerns the simplistic system of 'high-wage, low-wage' doesn't take into account the skill level and it really doesn't take into account the total compensation including things like bonuses and gratuities."

Perrin Beatty, president and CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, told CBC News he is also hearing similar complaints from employers who need to hire high-skilled workers across various sectors of the Canadian economy.

"We're hearing from one coast to another. We're hearing there's a real challenge for businesses to get their hands on the high-skilled people they need."

In a phone interview on Tuesday, Beatty said he is worried that ski resorts have yet to hear back from the minister in charge.

"I haven't heard of responses yet and this is a concern to me because obviously people are doing planning for the coming winter season ... it's going to have a very serious economic impact in many communities across the country."

Beatty said that employers in the tech industry are also being impacted by the new rules, which are making it harder for them to hire high-skilled workers like software developers.

"There are other sectors as well that are having a hard time getting their hands on the people that they need and I hope the government will give a priority to saying: where there are skills that are missing in Canada and where bringing in somebody from abroad would allow a business to be more successful, were to hire more Canadians as a result, we need to expedite this," Beatty said.

Onus on employers to show 'transition plans'

Janet Ecker, the president & CEO of Toronto Financial Services Alliance, was invited to take part in a stakeholder meeting with the immigration minister last week.

Ecker, whose group works with financial services companies located abroad but looking to do business in Toronto, said she told Alexander the new rules are making it more difficult for banks, insurance and pension funds companies to recruit the world's brightest and best talent.

"Our economy is dependent on the ability for talent to move readily in here when we need it, for companies who are located here to have access to global talent. So there's a very strong economic impetus here that can't be ignored."

"I know for a number of our companies it's been very frustrating."

Eckert said while both ministers have been receptive to these concerns they have yet to offer a solution.

Asked how Kenney intended to respond to these concerns, a spokesperson for the minister would not say but told CBC News the onus is on employers to show the government they are taking steps to reduce the number of foreign workers they hire in high-wage jobs over the long-term.

"Transition plans will oblige employers of high-wage temporary foreign workers to help Canadians obtain in-demand skills through activities like investing in skills training or taking on more apprentices, or an employer can provide proof that they are helping a high-skilled temporary foreign worker transition to becoming a permanent resident of Canada," Alexandra Fortier said in an email, quoting directly from the new rules posted on the Employment and Social Development Canada web site.

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