Temporary foreign worker plans won't help, says Alberta minister

Alberta's jobs minister says Ottawa's proposed changes to the temporary foreign workers program aren't going to make things better.

Alberta jobs minister says Ottawa needs to better enforce old rules not bring in new ones

Alberta Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk says the federal government needs to better enforce the current rules around temporary foreign workers, not bring in new ones. (CBC)

Alberta's jobs minister says Ottawa's proposed changes to the temporary foreign workers program aren't going to make things better.

Among the measures is a proposal to force companies to pay low-skilled temporary foreign workers higher wages in order to make them a less affordable option for employers.

However, Thomas Lukaszuk says that is not the way to solve the program's problems.

"What you really need is to bring compliance measures into that program and enforcement measures and punish those who abuse the program," he said. "Then you don't have to have government in the business of business and [deciding] who needs what."

Earlier this month, a website mapped government authorizations of temporary foreign workers around the country up until the end of 2012.

The information was released by the federal Human Resources and Skills Development ministry under an access to information request.

It showed that contrary to claims by business that the program bolsters the workforce in rural or remote areas, the vast majority of temporary foreign workers were approved in the three major urban centres of B.C. and Alberta.

In Calgary, 299 of the 718 businesses that received authorizations in that period were restaurants, pubs and fast-food outlets — or 41 per cent.

Alberta still struggling with labour shortage

Following a series of reports by CBC's Go Public team, the federal government conducted an investigation into allegations the program was being abused by employers.

Federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney announced on April 24 the government would be suspending the Temporary Foreign Workers program.

The decision left some restaurants in Calgary short-staffed.

At Globefish, a popular Calgary sushi restaurant, the decision forced them to close one day each week after several potential employees set to arrive from Japan fell into limbo.

Alberta has repeatedly found itself struggling with a labour shortage in low-skilled and high turnover industries.

Part of the problem lies in the lure of the province's booming oil and gas industry, as local and migrant workers flock to the oilsands and away from work in restaurants and fast-food outlets.

The province and the Conference Board of Canada flagged the issue in 2006 and warned the problem was likely to continue over the next 20 years, despite some employers offering wages above minimum wage to try and attract committed workers.

Tie permits to unemployment rate?

[It] does a great disservice to the entrepreneurs- Richard Truscott, Canadian Federation of Independent Business

One of the other proposals under the new rules would aim to tie the number of foreign workers allowed to the unemployment rate, although it's not clear whether that would be the province's unemployment rate, the region's or that of a particular industry.

Richard Truscott, with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, says there should be other ways to address the foreign workers issue than restricting who can hire them.

"Business in certain regions of the country or certain sectors of the economy won't be able to hire temporary foreign workers," he said. "[It] does a great disservice to the entrepreneurs, the hard-working entrepreneurs that are desperate to find qualified people, have been unable to do so — to find qualified Canadians — and are really using the program as a form of last resort and are following all the rules."

He says bringing foreign workers over is an expensive and time-consuming process — and one that isn't taken lightly by business.

More details about the new rules are expected to emerge over the coming weeks.

Calgary has been experiencing its lowest unemployment rate since the recession of 2008 and in Edmonton, the unemployment rate has fallen to 4.8 per cent.

The map on the NTFW.ca website shows business in B.C. and Alberta employing temporary foreign workers. (NTFW.ca/Google Maps)