OTTAWA — Employers in hard-hit regions of Canada have been hiring temporary foreign workers despite an abundance of domestic job-seekers, government data suggests, while at least two Conservative MPs have privately sounded alarm bells about the besieged federal program.
Temporary foreign workers were the subject of a heated debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday, when Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau accused the Conservatives of contributing to joblessness in southwestern Ontario by allowing companies to hire foreign help.
A recent report by the C.D. Howe Institute, a non-partisan public policy think-tank, suggested the program has also spurred joblessness in Alberta and B.C.
“In Windsor, the number of unemployed workers has risen by 40 per cent while the number of foreign workers in the city has grown by 86 per cent,” Trudeau said. “Unemployment in London has risen by 27 per cent while the number of foreign workers has increased by 87 per cent.”
In a letter to Liberal MP John McCallum, auditor general Michael Ferguson suggested he was open to conducting a review of the program. Both the Liberals and the NDP have been calling for a probe by the auditor general.
“It is helpful for me to know about the issues that preoccupy you as a parliamentarian, and I appreciate your taking the time to inform me of them,” Ferguson wrote, adding he planned to ask the government “for their information in planning for future audits.”
“Let me assure you that we are aware of the current debates concerning the program.”
But it was two different letters obtained by The Canadian Press — one from Conservative MP Kellie Leitch, now labour minister, and Alberta colleague Blake Richards — that posed even further embarrassments for the government on what’s become one of its most vexatious files.
In a letter written in April 2012 to Transport Minister Denis Lebel, Leitch told of an Air Canada pilot in her riding who “expressed concern regarding the hiring of foreign crews and pilots who are driving down the salaries of Canadian pilots as well as contributing to the unemployment of Canadian pilots.”
In his response, Lebel referred Leitch to Diane Finley, then the human resources and skills development minister, and Jason Kenney, then minister of immigration.
Richards, meantime, wrote to Finley in late 2009, raising similar concerns about CanJet’s hiring practices.
“At a time when many people are having difficulties finding employment, I am sure you can appreciate why some pilots would be upset that their colleagues have been overlooked by CanJet,” he wrote.
Data compiled by Employment Minister Jason Kenney’s department indeed shows that a slew of temporary foreign workers have been hired in recent years in areas struggling with joblessness, including the Maritimes and southwestern Ontario, and in sectors where there is no lack of domestic candidates.
Helicopter pilots were among those who stepped forward last week to say they were losing out on jobs to cheaper temporary foreign workers.
And in 2012, for example, the government granted positive labour market opinions for 375 temporary foreign workers in Cape Breton, a region of Nova Scotia that had a 17.5 per cent unemployment rate last year.
Kenney’s office issued a statement challenging the notion that temporary foreign workers contribute to joblessness rates, citing Statistics Canada findings.
“Statistics Canada clearly stated that, ‘The effect of temporary foreign workers on the employment estimates is negligible,’ representing two per cent of overall employment,” spokeswoman Alexandra Fortier said in an email.
Kenney and various Conservative MPs rose to defend the government’s handling of the program and those employers who are using temporary foreign workers in sectors and regions with legitimate labour shortages.
Alberta MP Chris Warkentin, the Conservative member for Peace River, accused Trudeau of demonizing employers who have tried but ultimately were unable to find domestic employees.
He pointed to McDonald’s restaurants in Grand Prairie, saying the fast-food giant has dozens of job vacancies and is offering more than the prevailing market wage but can’t fill the positions.
Kenney has temporarily banned restaurants from accessing the temporary foreign workers program amid a spate of abuse allegations. He’s expected to announce a new round of rule restrictions soon, including efforts to beef up the auditing powers of federal inspectors.