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Temporary foreign worker program needs review following Microsoft deal: NDP

03/19/2015 05:26 EDT | Updated 05/19/2015 05:59 EDT
The federal NDP wants a full independent review of the temporary foreign worker program after CBC News obtained draft documents showing the bulk of workers at Microsoft's new British Columbia training centre will likely be foreigners.

NDP employment critic Jinny Sims said the documents show Microsoft has managed to get around the federal government's promise to crack down on the program.

"It's Canadians who are losing jobs because Microsoft has no commitment and no legal obligation ... to do any kind of search within the [Canadian] labour market," she said in an interview.  

Federal and provincial governments have praised the Microsoft Canada Excellence Centre as a boost to the B.C. economy that will create 400 jobs, mainly in software and services engineering.

But, under a federal-provincial annex agreement, Microsoft was exempted from conducting a labour market impact assessment (LMIA) for a group of 150 rotational workers, or paid trainees. That assessment would have required the company to provide evidence that there are no Canadians qualified for the jobs.

In a crackdown last spring, the Employment and Skills Development department under former minister Jason Kenney promised to stop such exemptions through the annex agreements.​

The documents show that in the planning stages, another 200 "core" employees at the Microsoft Centre of Excellence would be hired, but no guarantees were made that more than 10 per cent of those workers would be Canadian.

79 Canadians hired so far

Sims said the company should have to prove its claims there aren't enough qualified Canadians.

"How can I believe that when they themselves have no obligation to look for Canadian workers, and we have no data? They don't even have to advertise [the jobs]," she said.

​The documents regarding jobs at the excellence centre were obtained under provincial freedom of information laws and given to CBC News by a third party who works in the high-tech industry.

On Wednesday, Microsoft Canada's director of legal and corporate affairs said the company is "creating net new jobs" with the excellence centre.

"In fact, we have hired Canadians since the announcement last year. And those are jobs that exist and would not exist if it weren't for the establishment of the excellence centre," Dennis Lopes told CBC Radio's The Early Edition. 

In a statement late Wednesday night, Microsoft said it has so far hired 79 Canadians to staff the training centre. But it has made no promise to hire a majority of Canadians at the facility, or to prove through a labour market assessment that qualified Canadians are unavailable.

Earlier, the company stated that its current employees are mostly Canadian, but "as we hire staff for our new excellence centre, we will be recruiting talent from around the world (in addition to Canada), which may result in that balance shifting."

The company's response comes after CBC News asked Microsoft and both the B.C. and federal governments to provide updated numbers about the Microsoft Canada Excellence Centre. 

'Smoke and mirrors'

The federal government said at first that the jobs will "mostly" go to Canadians.

​On Thursday, a spokesman for Citizenship Minister Chris Alexander said the government has limited the temporary foreign worker program to "a short term, last, and limited resort for employers when there are no qualified Canadians to fill available jobs."

"International trainees at this facility will not be entering the Canadian labour market. Subsequently, the Microsoft Centre of Excellence in Canada will provide training and job opportunities for Canadians in Canada," Kevin Menard wrote in an email to CBC News.

Sims, whose riding is B.C.'s Newton-North Delta, said the government is not being honest.

"What they use are smoke and mirrors. They keep saying well, the majority of workers will be Canadian, when the [documents show] exactly the opposite," she said.

Sims noted that Microsoft officials have said the B.C. training centre was born of a desire to get around stricter U.S. foreign worker rules, and she believes the 150 rotational workers will likely be transferred to the U.S. in a short period of time.

"Here we have a company that admits it's only bringing people through Canada because the rules are tougher in the U.S. And we have a government that's facilitating this type of manipulation," she said. "We used to hear of money-laundering, this is people-laundering."

In an interview last year with BloombergBusinessweek, Karen Jones, Microsoft’s deputy general counsel, said the deal will allow Microsoft to bypass stricter U.S. rules on visas for foreign workers.

"The U.S. laws clearly did not meet our needs. We have to look to other places," she told the wire service. She went on to say Microsoft didn’t choose to expand in Vancouver "purely for immigration purposes, but immigration is a factor."

The B.C. government has insisted the training centre will provide a "net benefit" by bringing in "at least $90 million annually for up to 10 years."

If you have more information on this or another story, contact Louise Elliott at louise.elliott@cbc.ca.

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