The Alberta Federation of Labour called for an inquiry Tuesday after it obtained a government list of more than 4,000 companies given approval to hire temporary foreign workers last year, many in the service industry.
"You look down this list and what you see is McDonald's, Tim Hortons, and Subway. This list goes on. It stretches the bounds of credibility that all of these employers have been using temporary foreign workers to hire skilled workers," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, on CBC News Network's Power & Politics.
McGowan's comments come after a CBC story this week of one man's experience training foreign workers to take his job drew a fire storm of controversy and a hard look at Canada's temporary foreign workers program.
David Moreau told the CBC he and 42 other IT workers at RBC are being replaced by a foreign workforce.
"The new people are in our offices and we are training them to do our jobs," he said. "That adds insult to injury."
The head of RBC denied the bank is replacing Canadian workers with temporary foreign workers. Foreign workers were hired by iGate, an outsourcing firm, which has a contract with the bank to provide IT services.
Kelly Leitch, parliamentary secretary for the minister of human resources and skills development, said the government is looking into it.
"We have some significant concerns about what's going on in the temporary foreign workers program and that's why in (the budget) we’ve committed to fix the challenges that exist so Canadians can be better connected to jobs."
Labour economist Erin Weir says that kind of review is essential: "This should lead to a broader debate about the temporary foreign worker program. Is it really addressing labour shortages? Or is it undermining job opportunities and wages in Canada?"
Program has ballooned
The program began in 1973 to fill a gap in the labour market for jobs Canadians could not or would not fill — domestic workers and agricultural workers as well as highly skilled jobs, such as specialist physicians and professors.
"The idea of having a temporary foreign worker program is legitimate," according to Prof. Ian Lee at Carleton University's Sprott School of Business. "The Germans, other European countries and the U.S. all have this kind of program. The issue is to have the right checks and balances to ensure it isn't abused."
But critics suggest those checks and balances have been undermined by recent changes to the program. The high-skill segment made up more than 50 per cent of temporary foreign workers, but all that changed in 2002. That's when the federal government under the Liberals began a pilot project adding a new category of "low skilled workers."
According to a recent report by the faculty of business at Athabasca University in Edmonton, the "low skilled category now dominates the temporary foreign workforce, with the top categories now including food counter attendants, kitchen helpers, cooks; construction trades, helpers and labourers, light-duty cleaners and administration workers including information technology."
In 2006, the new Conservative government expanded the pilot project, and added "fast-tracking" for some jobs in Alberta and British Columbia. The new list of jobs called "regional occupations under pressure," reduced the obligation by employers to seek out Canadian workers first.
The government document obtained by the Alberta Federation of Labour suggests employers such as fast food operators like McDonald's and Tim Hortons are using this accelerated program to bring in cheap labour.
The program is aimed at higher-skilled workers, but they don't have to prove they've advertised for Canadians to fill the jobs first, said Gil McGowan.
"They don't have to run over the same checks and balances and that's why we're concerned, because clearly this process is being abused by service sector employers. And it's important to note that the government wants to expand the accelerated program, which we think would be a disaster."
Cities taking more temporary foreign workers
While most think the program is meant to fill jobs in remote parts of resource-rich Western Canada, some of the largest increase in temporary foreign workers have been in cities.
Since 2008, permits for temporary foreign workers in Toronto increased by 60 per cent, in Montreal by 87 per cent and the Atlantic Provinces saw an 80 per cent increase, according to data from Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
The total number of temporary foreign workers has doubled in the last decade, to 338,189 workers.
"We now have about as many temporary workers in Canada as the entire workforce of New Brunswick," said Weir, an economist with the United Steel Workers Union.
"I think part of the problem is that a lot of companies are going through the motions of pretending to hire Canadians, in order to gain those Labour Market Opinions that they need to get temporary foreign workers."
Weir suggests the foreign worker program often allows employers to fill vacancies without providing training opportunities or raising wages to attract workers.
He points to recent studies showing Canadian companies underperform compared to businesses in other OECD countries, including the U.S., when it comes to training and development of its own workforce.
All Canadians could pay for the expansion of this category of worker, according to Weir: "Expanding labour supply, without an offsetting expansion of demand, increases unemployment and decreases wages."
Allowing cheaper wages
Another change to the program last year allows employers to pay workers 15 per cent less than Canadian workers. Carleton's Ian Lee says allowing lower wages could undermine Canadians' support for the program.
"The problem is it creates the perception that it's being used to undermine organized labour or undermine the market wage rate in that job classification. It’s going to discourage public support when Canadians realize an employer can do that."
"Canadian workers are being displaced, training is being ignored and the TFW program is becoming the first choice rather than a tool of last resort," said the Alberta Federation of Labour’s McGowan.
Kelly Leitch defends the program.
"When we don't have a Canadian available because there actually isn't anyone available, it's important that we have access to a good program, a sound temporary foreign worker program; that skilled labour can be brought into the country to make sure that firms can thrive."
She said the government is committed to reviewing the program, but had no details on when that review would be complete.
Perhaps the courts will get there first.
On Tuesday, HD Mining International was in a Vancouver courtroom, defending its decision to hire 201 workers from China for its coal mine in Tumbler Ridge, B.C.
Two B.C. unions launched the case against the company.
Brian Cochrane, of the International Union of Operating Engineers, hopes the case will result in changes.
"I think that this case is going to give us a chance to look under the hood of the whole temporary foreign worker program."