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Hill Dispatches

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Karl Nerenberg has been reporting on federal politics from Parliament Hill for rabble.ca since September, 2011. In his long career, he has won numerous awards as a broadcaster and documentary filmmaker.

Jason Kenney shows his true colours while explaining changes to foreign worker program

| April 29, 2013
Jason Kenney shows his true colours while explaining changes to foreign worker program

Sometimes Immigration Minister Jason Kenney can get a bit too enthusiastic.

It happened, for instance, on Monday afternoon, when he was explaining one of the hastily-concocted changes to the government's temporary foreign worker program.

The change in question was the new rule obliging employers who use temporary foreign workers to provide a plan showing how they will transition to full time Canadian workers.

As he was elaborating on this reform, Kenney got carried away and exulted that even farmers who bring in help from other countries will have to abide by this new rule.


A moment later, Kenney had to correct himself and admit that farmers are, in fact, excluded.

Other employers will have to provide those plans, although it is not clear exactly how they'll work and how the federal government will use the plans to assure that companies employ Canadians rather than guest workers.

The government also announceed that it will make it costlier for employers to use temporary foreign workers by raising some existing fees and adding new ones, such as a cost recovery for the process called a Labour Market Opinion (LMO).

The LMO process involves the federal government examining an employer's needs for labour and the availability -- or non-availability -- of Canadians with the necessary skills to do the work in question. The government then issues its "opinion" on the employer's requirement for foreign workers.

Critics have noted that LMOs have tended to be pro forma. The Government is not in the habit of turning down employers' requests for temporary foreign workers

In addition, on Monday -- in one clear win for the Opposition and organized labour -- the government eliminated the so-called "15 per cent rule." This notorious provision has allowed employers to pay guest workers 15 per cent less than the prevailing, median rate at which Canadians are paid.

How to abolish a rule that never existed?

The 15 per cent part of the announcement caused another moment of awkwardness for Jason Kenney.

A little more than an hour earlier, in response to a question from opposition leader Tom Mulcair, the Minister of Immigration had tried to convince the House that the 15 per cent rule does not, in fact, exist.

"I do not know whether the Leader of the Opposition has been improperly briefed or whether he knows he is wrong when he says that the rules allow for foreign workers to be underpaid," Kenney declared, "That is not true. People cannot come into this country to work on work permits unless they are paid at the prevailing regional wage rate."

At the outset of the news conference to announce the temporary foreign worker reforms, the CBC's Terry Milewski asked how the Government could be abolishing the 15 per cent rule if it never existed.

First, Kenney tried to explain that it was all much more "complicated" than the Opposition's version. The rule is, you see, that employers can only pay 15 per cent below the prevailing rate if at least some Canadian workers are also paid at that lower rate.

Then, the Minister added that, in any case, the 15 per cent rule was only a kind of "experiment." And that experiment, he said, is now over.

The point is to encourage companies to hire Canadians...?

Overall, Kenney wanted to push out the message that the government is making it more difficult and costly for employers to hire temporary foreign workers.

It wants those employers to try harder to hire Canadians.

And Kenney did want to make clear that many classes of temporary foreign workers are not the subject of any controversy whatsoever.

Many, for instance, are professionals on intra-company, international transfers, and come from developed countries such as the United States and France. Others are on short term youth exchanges. Kenney cited the example of young Aussies who work for six months at Whistler in British Columbia.

Elsewhere on rabble.ca, economist Jim Stanford notes that more fundamental reforms are necessary to the temporary foreign worker program than those announced on Monday.

One of those reforms would entail opening a path to landed immigrant status for those temporary foreign workers who do fill a genuine gap in the Canadian labour market. If we need them, Stanford and others argue, then we should let them settle here for good.

The labour movement has been making that same argument for while.

Resisting the 'laws of economic gravity'

On the same day the government announced its reforms to the foreign worker program, the Alberta Federation of Labour issued a study of the impact of the temporary foreign worker program in that province.

One of the many facts and figures in the report harkens back to 2010. In that year, Alberta lost 8600 jobs. It also brought in nearly 23,000 temporary foreign workers.

The report catalogues the impact of the temporary foreign worker program in both big city and small town Alberta, and finds it to be problematic everywhere.

The program has allowed employers to disinvest in training and apprenticeship programs, the report says, and made it harder for young Albertans to find work.

The report explains that, prior to 2004, very few employers used the temporary foreign worker program.

Then came the oil sands boom.

The boom meant, the report says, that "wages had to keep pace with an economy that was lurching ahead -- without a plan for labour or skills shortages -- and employers wanted a way to contain labour costs."

When demand for labour goes up, the laws of the market economy normally dictate that wages will inevitably go up.

But, the report argues, Alberta employers wanted to find a way to stop the inevitable.

"The only way to defy the laws of economic gravity," the report explains, "is to flood the labour market with a supply of workers who are unlikely to demand higher wages, better standards, pensions, or benefits."

Temporary foreign worker system has a series of negative impacts

The Alberta Federation of Labour report details the negative impact on communities of having large populations of migrants who cannot put down roots and bring in their families.

Such people, the report explains, cannot fully engage with their communities, and, even at a rather banal level, will not become consumers for such local businesses as furniture stores. At the same time, communities are obliged to provide services for the temporary workers.

On the whole, in other words, the entire system of guest workers has negative impacts: on wage rates, on youth employment, on the availability of training and on community cohesion.

As Jim Stanford notes, these bad consequences have been well known for a while, but it took a tale of what seemed to be flagrant abuse by the Royal Bank of Canada to get the government to make even timid and modest changes.

The Harper government has, until very recently, been enthusiastically paving the way for employers to use more and more temporary foreign workers.

To cite but one example: one of the signal accomplishments of Harper's handpicked Red Tape Reduction Commission has been to eliminate some of the regulations that "made it more difficult" for companies to hire temporary foreign workers.

This Conservative government has, in fact, been quite proud of Canada's guest worker program. It is no doubt more than a little pleased that some American politicians believe that the United States should emulate this particular Canadian program.

Even when announcing reforms to the system and denouncing its abuses, Harper's Immigration Minister could not help but show his true colours on all this.

At the end of Monday's news conference, Kenney indulged in a little more of that freewheeling, sometimes off-the-wall, rhetoric for which he is so well known.

He talked about how young Canadians, "back in the day," used to happily take fairly earthy summer jobs, such as picking fruit in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley.

Kenney said he recently asked some British Columbia famers why they don't currently employ more young Canadians during harvest season.

The farmers told him, the Minister reported, that young people "won't work at anything that does not involve sitting at a computer in an air-conditioned office."

There you have it. If some Canadians -- especially young Canadians -- are out of work, it's their own fault.

And so, on the one hand, we have that great tautologist and profound thinker Ottawa area Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre continuing to insist that the "root cause of terrorism is terrorists."

Now, on the other, we have Jason Kenney, with his own deep thoughts.

Is the Minister going to insist that the 'root cause of youth unemployment is young people?'



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