The Harper government has quietly backed away from changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program that would have banned employers convicted of certain crimes from participating.
New rules for the controversial foreign worker program came into effect on Dec. 31, but they did not include a ban on employers who are convicted of human trafficking, sexual assault against an employee or causing the death of an employee.
Those rules were part of what the Tories had said they planned to do when they first announced changes to the TFW program.
In its official release of the new TFW program rules, the government explained the ban on convicted criminals “was too rigid and cumbersome in the proposed form.”
Instead, the new rules include a provision requiring employers to “make reasonable efforts” to provide a workplace free from abuse.
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, described the Tories’ about-face as “Orwellian.”
“They seem to be consciously and deliberately misleading Canadians into believing that they’re cracking down down on the [TFW] program when in fact the opposite is happening,” he told the Globe and Mail, noting that the rule changes were announced with great fanfare last year, but the details were released quietly over the holidays.
A spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada told the Globe the government was given legal opinions that the ban was redundant, because of the provision requiring “reasonable efforts” to maintain an abuse-free work environment.
Numerous other elements of the TFW program are changing. Employers will no longer be able to pay foreign workers 15 per cent below the prevailing wage for a job, as was previously the case.
Additionally, the government will be allowed to make surprise inspections, without a warrant, of workplaces using the TFW program, a move to which some business groups have objected.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business criticized the changes as "the worst decision for business since the Harper government took office in 2006."
The group, and others like it, argue tightening the TFW program will worsen labour shortages in some parts of the economy, particularly in resource-rich western provinces.
But there is little agreement on whether or not Canada is actually suffering from labour shortages.
While groups such as the Canadian Chamber of Commerce call the labour shortage situation “desperate,” data from StatsCan earlier this year suggested that the problem is less severe now than it usually is.
A report from TD Bank earlier this year called Canada’s labour shortages a “myth,” and critics of the TFW program say the shortages argument is being used by businesses to avoid the wage hikes they would otherwise need to implement to find Canadian workers.
Despite the Tories’ tightening of the TFW rules, some critics say it’s not enough to stop the growing wave of temporary foreign workers coming to Canada. They note that, even as the Tories promised tougher rules, TFW admissions to Canada jumped 18 per cent in the past two years.
Some academics have called for a cap on the number of foreign workers admitted to Canada, something that is not part of the new rules.
And though businesses and the government deny it, critics say the TFW program is reducing job opportunities for Canadians. They point to examples such as the recent laying off of more than 270 oilsands workers at the Husky Sunrise project, who lost their jobs to a new contractor hiring foreign workers.
And last year, B.C.’s HD Mining was mired in controversy when it emerged that the company, which has a permit to use foreign workers, had made speaking Mandarin a requirement for workers at its Canadian facilities.
Labour groups last year lost a legal challenge to HD Mining’s foreign worker permit. Documents from the court case indicate the federal government saw this as a victory.