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Sandy Nelson can't fight back the tears as she talks about losing her long-term serving job to temporary foreign workers. 

"How can that be right, that they're not Canadians? I'm a Canadian," said Nelson, 58, who worked at Brothers Classic Grill and Pizza [previously called El Rancho] in Weyburn, Sask., for 28 years. 

"How can it be that I'm the one out looking for a job and they're the ones that are still employed?"

In March, she and all the staff received letters from the three brothers who own the restaurant.

She says about half of the workers are Canadians. The other half are temporary foreign workers.

"Due to changes in operations we are currently discharging all of our staff," the letter says. 

Sandy Nelson, Weyburn  skpic

Sandy Nelson lost her long-time restaurant job and says she was replaced by temporary foreign workers. (CBC)

Some of them were subsequently hired back, including two waitresses who are temporary foreign workers.

But Nelson was permanently dismissed.

Since 2002, the federal government has allowed companies to hire temporary foreign workers for jobs they can't fill with Canadians. 

Employers are supposed to advertise available positions in hopes of finding Canadian candidates. If no Canadians want the job, they can hire temporary foreign workers after applying for a Labour Market Opinion, a process intended to demonstrate there are no Canadian workers available to do the job.

In recent years, Brothers has brought in workers, including waitresses, through this process. 

Ottawa to investigate 

Weyburn foreign workers case

 A spokeswoman with Employment Minister Jason Kenney's office says the Weyburn foreign workers case will be investigated.

"It would be important for readers to know what the Minister has been repeating — that Canadians are always first in line for jobs, and that any allegation of abuse of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, like this one, will be vigorously investigated," Alexandra 

Fortier said. 

Concerns about the Temporary Foreign Workers Program have been making national news in recent days.

CBC's Go Public broke the story that several McDonald's franchises in B.C. and Alberta hired temporary foreign workers, and displaced Canadians in the process. 

In response, Kenney's office said it is conducting an "urgent investigation."

Abuse is unacceptable. Displacing Canadians from jobs is not tolerable and I think the word is clearly going out to employers about that," Kenney told CBC News.

"I can tell you as soon as we've learned of any allegations of abuse we've immediately launched investigations, blacklisted the employers pending the outcome and taken other disciplinary measures." 

- CBC's Geoff Leo

Now those government-approved temporary foreign workers have jobs, while Nelson continues to look for one. 

Nelson says she was planning to retire at Brothers and had every reason to believe that would happen. 

She says that at a meeting a few years back, "the three of them [Brothers personnel] were sitting there and they all said as long as we own this place, you'll always have a job with us."

'It's hurtful to be put aside'

Shaunna Jennison-Yung said she was given the same promise. 

She worked at the restaurant for 14 years, before she lost her job to temporary foreign workers. 

"The jobs they have aren't jobs that nobody wanted. We wanted them," Jennison-Yung explained. 

She said to make matters worse, as a supervisor, she was unwittingly training her replacements.

"It's hurtful to be put aside and have people that you trained to do your job now doing your job. It's heartbreaking is what it is."

Brothers restaurant responds

In a written statement to CBC's iTeam, the owners of Brothers acknowledged that the company participates in the Temporary Foreign Workers Program. 

"To the best of our information and belief the business is compliant with the program and any changes to operations will be structured to ensure compliance."

And they pointed out "employees are a valuable asset to any business."

Shaunna Jennison-Yung, Weyburn   skpic

Shaunna Jennison-Yung of Weyburn, Sask., says she lost her job and was replaced by a temporary foreign worker. (CBC)

"All obligations to any employee are taken seriously. This includes the protection of personal information." 

Chris Worswick, a labour economist with Carleton University in Ottawa, said there is increasing anecdotal evidence employers prefer to hire temporary foreign workers. 

"I don't see how they can legally choose to not hire Canadian workers who are qualified, who want to work at the advertised wage, and then turn around and ask the government for a temporary foreign worker. My understanding is they should be refused in that situation." 

Worswick said temporary foreign workers are tied to the employer who brought them into the country and would have to leave Canada if they lost their jobs. 

He said this gives Canadian employers confidence that foreign workers will be hard working and won't take days off. 

"I have genuine concern that Canadian employers are distorting the program, sort of breaking the rules, I think explicit rules of the program, to their own advantage."

Brothers situation raises questions, expert says

The chair of Queen's University's School of Policy Studies in Kingston, Ont., said while she doesn't know the specifics of the Brothers situation, on the surface it raises some questions.

"It would certainly be against the spirit, the intent of the program and likely it would be against the letter of the regulations to bring people in and then subsequently displace people as a result of bringing those folks in," said Naomi Alboim. 

She worries that Canadian companies are using the temporary foreign worker program before they've done their due diligence and thoroughly examined the Canadian labour market. 

"We should only be using temporary foreign workers as the very, very, very last resort." Alboim explained. 

She said Canadian companies should do some self-reflection and examine their own wages, working conditions and training programs before looking outside the country. 


Replay the Saskatoon Morning live chat about the state of the temporary foreign worker program.  

With files from David Fraser