EDMONTON - A labour group is calling for a review of a federal program designed to help employers quickly hire temporary foreign workers for high-skill jobs.
The Alberta Federation of Labour says since the program was announced last April, more than 2,400 permits have been approved to hire foreign workers for low-skill service industry positions.
Federation president Gil McGowan says access to information documents show the employers include fast-food restaurants, convenience stores and gas stations.
"You look down this list, and it's McDonald's, Tim Hortons, A&W, Subway," McGowan said Tuesday.
"Are we supposed to believe that these are 'high-skill' employment opportunities?"
Some of the other businesses listed in the documents include The Big Moo Ice Cream Parlour in Alberta, Burger King in British Columbia and Pizza Express in Ontario.
McGowan said the permits are being used to replace Canadian workers and drive down wages.
He has sent a letter, along with the documents, to federal auditor general Michael Ferguson. It asks for an audit of the government's approval process.
Alyson Queen, director of communications for Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, said in an email that the department is "very concerned."
"Officials are investigating and will look into any evidence that the program is being misused," she said.
"The program exists to address real and acute labour shortages in certain sectors and regions across the country on a temporary basis. It was never meant to replace Canadians with foreign workers."
Under the federal Accelerated-Labour Market Opinion (ALMO) program, employers can pay foreign workers up to 15 per cent less than Canadian workers. The program is designed to process permits to hire temporary foreign workers for high-skill jobs, including the skilled trades, within 10 business days.
"The percentage of ALMO approvals for businesses that largely employ low-skilled workers appears to be in direct contradiction to the stated parameters of the program," McGowan writes in the letter.
McGowan said just over half of the approvals by the department are for businesses in Alberta, including 33 A&W restaurants.
Information posted on the department's website says permits under ALMO have been approved for every jurisdiction in the country except for Prince Edward Island, the Yukon and Nunavut.
Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said many small- and medium-size employers need temporary foreign workers to fill jobs. The need is most pressing in Western Canada and in rural communities right across the country, he said.
"I take it as a positive that businesses of all skill levels are able to access this expedited process. Our members really need those expedited processes," Kelly said from Toronto.
"We are moving into large pockets of the country where it has gone beyond a skills shortage and has moved into a general labour shortage where there is no one available to take the jobs that are on offer by Canadian employers."
The CFIB says it represents more than 109,000 businesses across the country.
McGowan said if employers are having a tough time finding workers, they should pay higher wages or the federal government could increase immigration.
He suggested initiatives such as ALMO and the Temporary Foreign Worker program are not the answer.
"Workers who want to come to Canada should enjoy the same rights and privileges as other Canadian residents," he said.
"We shouldn't be paying them 15 per cent less than Canadians, and government shouldn't be whisking them in through an accelerated and duplicitous process."
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