Temporary foreign worker program review to be launched by Liberals

Employment Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk says she'll ask a parliamentary committee to review the temporary foreign worker program following feedback she's received from Canadians who say reforms brought in by the previous government "failed workers."

10% cap on hiring low-wage temporary foreign workers coming in July, if no changes made

Some Canadians say reforms by the previous Conservative government to the temporary foreign worker program 'failed workers,' the employment minister says. (CBC)

Employment Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk says she'll ask a parliamentary committee to review the temporary foreign worker program following feedback she's received from Canadians who say reforms brought in by the previous government missed the mark.

The Conservatives overhauled the program in June 2014 after a series of stories published by CBC's Go Public team alleged abuse of the program. 

"I plan to ask a House of Commons committee to study the program, to provide advice and suggestions for reform and improvement," Mihychuk said on Thursday in a written statement to CBC.

"The previous government's plan failed workers, businesses and Canadians, and undermined confidence in the program."

Stiff new fines and penalties for employers who break the new rules came into effect on Dec. 1 — after the new Liberal government was sworn into power. But reforms brought in by the Conservatives will further restrict access to the program in the coming months, unless the Liberals reverse some of those changes.

If no changes are made, employers with 10 or more staff will be expected to reduce from the current 20 per cent to 10 per cent the number of low-wage, temporary foreign workers they hire per job site by July 1. The Conservatives gradually phased in the cap, starting at 30 per cent in 2014.

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Under the last set of reforms brought in by the Conservatives, regions with unemployment rates over six per cent were barred from hiring temporary foreign workers.

"I have heard from businesses, from worker advocates, members of Parliament and others across Canada that the temporary foreign worker system needs to change," Mihychuk said on Thursday.

A scathing report published by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce last month was critical of the last set of reforms to the program and called on the federal government to conduct an immediate review of labour and immigration reforms brought in by the Conservatives.

The review would be conducted by the Commons committee on human resources, skills and social development, although the minister did not say when it would begin.

"With committees just beginning their work, it's too soon to know details such as timing or next steps," Mihychuk said on Thursday.

"This work will be part of our plan to bring clarity, focus and accountability to the program — and our plan to help Canadian workers find good jobs, get back to work, and strengthen our economy."

Exemptions for Maritimes?

Prior to question period, Mihychuk conceded she had yet to discuss the review with her colleague Bryan May, who was just recently elected chair of the Commons committee.

May, who represents the riding of Cambridge, Ont., told CBC News that constituents and businesses have told him the program is "broken."

"We need to get this program to a place where it benefits our economy in a transparent and accountable way," May said in an email Thursday.

"The members of the committee will decide if we look at this issue, and we'll be discussing what studies we will proceed with at our next meeting."

The Liberals make up the majority of the MPs on the committee (six out of 10), which also counts three Conservatives and one New Democrat.

Mihychuk would not say whether a review would give seafood processors in the Maritimes, who have been complaining of chronic worker shortages, any special exemptions.

The P.E.I. Fishermen's Association is one of several groups, who have been calling on the federal government to allow seafood processing plants to hire more temporary foreign workers where no Canadians can be found to fill open jobs.

The previous Conservative government did make some exceptions.

It granted businesses in Yellowknife, where the unemployment rate hovered around seven per cent, an exemption from a hiring ban last April. It also made some exceptions for foreign musicians performing in Canada for a limited period of time.

Conservative MP Jason Kenney, who was employment minister when he introduced the temporary worker reforms in 2014, was not available for comment.

NDP MP Irene Mathyssen said during question period that the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, which the Liberals have signed on to but have yet to ratify, will make it easier for companies to bring in foreign workers.

"How do they expect to fix the broken temporary foreign worker program while they ram through a trade deal that would create new loopholes," Mathyssen said on Thursday.

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