01/17/2014 03:24 EST | Updated 01/25/2014 04:01 EST

Stephen Harper: Temporary Foreign Worker Program Has Been Abused


Canada has “overextended” its controversial temporary foreign worker (TFW) program, while some businesses have abused it, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told a closed-door meeting of journalists last week.

The admission has the opposition NDP accusing the Harper government of stealing its position on foreign workers.

Audio of the meeting with ethnic reporters in Vancouver was provided to news site 24Hours. In it, Harper addresses numerous economic and immigration issues, including the TFW program.

We have seen very blatant examples of companies using this in ways that were not in the interest of Canadians,” Harper said, noting before hand that some of his audience may find his comments “surprising.”

Harper said the government has seen “numerous examples of abuse of this program, outright abuse: Companies importing workers for the sole purpose of paying less than the prevailing wage, companies importing workers for the purpose of permanently moving the jobs offshore to other countries….”

While he said there is a legitimate need for the TFW program, “I actually think what we need is not more temporary foreign workers, but more permanent foreign workers.”

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Largest Canadian Employers Using Temporary Foreign Workers (2013)

Harper’s comments drew a strong response from NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, who told the Vancouver Sun it sounded like Harper was lifting the NDP’s stance on the program.

“Every single time I have raised these exact concerns with the Conservative government, the prime minister denied there were any problems with this program,” Mulcair said.

“And now, during a secret meeting, we see him attempt to adopt NDP positions? If Stephen Harper is going to steal our ideas, he should at least do it in public.”

The prime minister said he wanted to see foreign workers “have a path to citizenship and become a long term part of the Canadian economy and society.”

But as recently as the first half of last year, the federal government was boosting the number of temporary foreign workers admitted to the country. Admissions jumped 18 per cent in the two years to 2013. The total number of TFWs in Canada has more than doubled in the past seven years, the Conference Board of Canada says, to some 360,000 workers.

Harper stressed in his talk with reporters the government’s recent moves to reign in the program, which came after controversy broke out last year when it emerged RBC was asking soon-to-be laid-off employees to train their replacements, some of whom had entered Canada on TFW permits.

Among the reforms, the government will no longer allow employers to pay TFWs 15 per cent below the prevailing rate for their job, as was previously the case.

But critics took aim at Harper after it emerged the government had backed off plans to ban employers who had abused workers from the TFW program.

“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,” Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said.