04/15/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 06/16/2014 05:59 EDT

Temporary Foreign Workers Being Approved Too Easily, Expert Warns

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REDWOOD CITY, CA - JULY 29: A Ronald McDonald sign overlooks the counter at a McDonald's restaurant July 29, 2003 in Redwood City, California. McDonald's Corporation today reported record second quarter and first half U.S. sales spurred by enthusiasm for its new food offerings and improvement in food taste and service initiatives. Despite the significantly stronger U.S. sales, McDonald?s global profits fell 5 percent as sales in its restaurants in Europe and Asia remained flat.(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
The government must tighten up requirements that allow Canadian employers to hire low skilled temporary foreign workers and do a better job enforcing the rules of the program, an expert in the issue says.

"The issue is how seriously are they taking that enforcement and how much are they actually doing it and what happens when they actually do do it," said Naomi Alboim, chair of Queen’s University's School of Policy Studies.

The federal government has expanded its investigation into McDonald’s use of temporary foreign workers following CBC's Go Public reports over complaints about the use of the Temporary Foreign Worker program at a franchise outlet in B.C.

Now, some McDonald's employees at some Alberta franchises are complaining that local workers are getting shortchanged to accommodate temporary foreign workers.

Alboim said the temporary foreign workers' low-skilled pilot project, introduced by the Liberal government in 2002,  has since "grown quite astronomically and that's the group that is pretty vulnerable.” Those who fall under that category include workers in the hospitality and food sectors.

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Alboim says the program is problematic. There is no transition to permanent residency status for low-skilled workers, unlike workers in the Live-In Caregiver Program.  As well, low-skilled temporary foreign workers are tied to a single employer, single location, with little mobility and very little enforcement, she said.

"And the question is, is it really true that there aren't people already here in Canada — whether permanent residents or Canadian citizens or students or young people —  not available to do those jobs?"

Many Canadian employers support the TFW program, arguing they need these workers to fill job vacancies. Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, recently told CBC News that many Canadian employers feel that temporary foreign workers have a better work ethic than Canadians and that there are some jobs in some regions that Canadians do not want to do.

But Alboim said there are many Canadians who are underrepresented in the workforce who could be trained to do these jobs.

“If employers would invest more into working conditions, improving wages, would there be more people willing to do this work?”

Employers who want to hire temporary foreign workers must get approval from the government by applying for a Labour Market Opinon (LMO).

"A positive Labour Market Opinion will show that there is a need for the foreign worker to fill the job you offer and that there is no Canadian worker available to do the job," according to the Citizenship and Immigration website.

But Albion said the LMO process is far too easy for employers.

The applications are approved without asking employers pointed questions about their wages, working conditions, how far afield have they looked for workers and what could they do to make their jobs more attractive, Alboim said.

“They don’t do that to a significant enough degree, in my opinion, so the employer get [approved] LMOs who should not get LMOs."

Albion said the rules need to be  tightened and that the "hiring of temporary foreign workers should be the last resort." 

"So there should be both a stronger set of requirements placed on the employers before they get the LMO and the LMO should be conditional on employers meeting other conditions in order for them to get it.

"And there should be enforcement to ensure that the employers are actually meeting the obligations and conditions attached to the issuance of the LMO."

Arthur Sweetman, professor of economics at McMaster University, said he believes the success or failure of the whole program hinges on the Labour Market Opinion.

"And my sense is that the LMO has not been as effective a tool in protecting Canadians as it might have been,' he said.

He said while he couldn't comment on the specific cases in B.C or Alberta, the LMO process in general may not be as thorough as it could be.

And he said it's difficult to know whether cases that do get media attention are the norm.

"The government has been sufficiently opaque that I don’t think we know if there’s any systematic trouble or not. My suspicion is that there is, but we simplydon't have the evidence one way or another."

Sweetman said there needs to be a much more transparent LMO process that would include the government posting statistics on a quarterly or half-yearly basis. He said the government should also post the number of temporary foreign workers coming into what regions of the country and what types of jobs they are doing.