MaryAnn Mihychuk To Toast End Of Temporary Foreign Workers Program

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OTTAWA — Labour Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk told a room full of union officials earlier this year that she plans to celebrate in her office on the day the Liberal government shuts down the temporary foreign workers program.

The federal Liberal cabinet minister says she meant it as a joke — but Mihychuk is nonetheless standing by her message that she hopes one day soon, the program will no longer be necessary.

Mihychuk made the remarks at a private gathering in Ottawa with the executive of the Canadian Labour Congress and its nationwide affiliates this spring, where the mostly friendly crowd comprised a few dozen people who were themselves no fans of the program.

maryann mihychuk
Labour Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk speaks in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill on Tuesday, June 14, 2016. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)

At least one person in the room, though, was taken aback.

"She made comments along the lines (of) it will be a happy day in her office when she cancels the program and stuff like that," said Joseph Maloney, the international vice-president of Canada for the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers.

The controversial temporary foreign workers program — characterized as crucial by some, broken and abuse-prone by others —is currently under review by the House of Commons standing committee on human resources, which is expected to deliver its report before MPs go home for the summer.

Grits quietly make one change

The Liberals already quietly made one change, removing restrictions on the number of workers seasonal employers can bring in through the program this year. The committee, though, is weighing all sorts of interests — from farmers and the meat-processing industry to the labour movement and human rights activists — in considering what could amount to a complete overhaul of the system.

Maloney said that while the majority of the people in the room during that meeting in April are opposed to the program — the Canadian Labour Congress, for instance, has long been calling for it to be scrapped — he and his union have a different perspective.

While other unions are concerned about companies using the program to replace Canadian employees with cheaper foreign nationals, the boilermakers use the program to bring in highly skilled and certified tradespeople from the United States and Ireland to fill temporary labour shortages.

Union exec caught off guard

"They are not charged any broker fees, there is no exploitation (and) when the work is finished or more Canadian boilermakers become available, they are laid off and sent home," said Maloney. Boilermakers must go through a four-year apprenticeship program before they can get a licence to work in the trade, he added.

Maloney, who made his case to Mihychuk during the meeting, wasn't offended, but he was surprised, he said.

"I don't think a labour minister should just be dismissing a program because of some bad apples."

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Mihychuk confirmed making the remark, but said she was "kind of joking" about wanting to shut it down.

"I said that because the program is so poorly organized and there are so many issues about the low-skilled portion of it, that that is exactly why we are having the parliamentary committee review it," she said.

"I don't think a labour minister should just be dismissing a program because of some bad apples."

She acknowledged that the boilermakers are in a different position, and that while she would still like to see more of those jobs go to Canadians, she is not particularly concerned about those kinds of opportunities.

"I was talking about the low-skilled temporary foreign workers, because there's a lot of systemic changes that need to happen to the program and if we had full employment, if we had those that are unemployed working, it would probably eliminate all temporary foreign workers," she said.

"It would be an indication our economy is booming and that would be great news." The remark drew a loud round of applause, she recalled.

"I think they understood the message — it's Canadians first."

Tories overhauled program in 2014

The previous Conservative government overhauled the program in 2014, phasing in a 10-per-cent cap on the number of temporary foreign workers most businesses can hire and disallowing use of the program in regions of Canada with high unemployment rates.

Those reforms followed a series of controversies dogging the program, including reports of fast-food franchise restaurants favouring temporary foreign workers over local employees.

The Royal Bank also landed in hot water for cutting Canadian jobs while a new supplier it contracted with to provide technical support brought in foreign workers.

CLC happy with feds' response

Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said while he does not recall specifically what Mihychuk said, he remembers being pleased that a federal cabinet minister seemed sympathetic to their views on the issue.

"We had been on the record for quite some time with the previous government, criticizing the program for all its failures and the abuse that happened," he said.

"I felt, 'OK, well, somebody is listening. We'll figure out where we go from here.' Sometimes people say nice things to us, but nothing seems to change."

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