Many groups criticize ?silly? barriers to addressing labour shortages
? PETER O?NEIL
The Vancouver Sun
OTTAWA — The federal Liberal government is under enormous pressure from people like Langley resident Donalda Madsen as it stands poised to loosen restrictions to the controversial Temporary Foreign Worker program.
Madsen, who needs a caregiver for her severely disabled son, represents one small component of a plethora of interested parties who have either appeared before a parliamentary committee or privately lobbied officials in hopes of influencing the changes.
They include companies like Vancouver’s Lululemon as well as business, labour and human rights organizations.
Some believe the former Conservative government overreacted in 2014 to a string of media reports outlining abuses in a program that brought hundreds of thousands of workers to Canada, many to take work that Canadians shun in areas such as meat-packing, berry-picking, home care, and the fast-food and hospitality industries.
Immigration Minister John McCallum was quoted in a media report this week that he wants to remove some of the “silly” barriers that prevent companies from meeting labour shortages.
One of the most problematic of the 2014 changes for Madsen was the hefty increase in the fee, from $275 to $1,000, to obtain a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) determination that confirms the job opening can’t be filled domestically.
That increased cost, as well as additional red tape injected into the LMIA process, have made it onerous for Madsen, 69, and her 74-year-old husband Peter as they try to care for their 50-year-old son Shane.
“Shane’s a wonderful, happy, kind man but he is quadriplegic and has about 40 words that people could understand,” said Madsen.
“He needs supervision 100 per cent of the time for safety and health reasons.”
Filipina nannies, whom she and her husband have been hiring since 1989, typically stay on the job for two to four years before they move on to different careers or to raise their own families in Canada, she said.
“So we’re always reapplying. And the cost is just going through the roof.”
Another of Madsen’s problems is the rule that she must pay her caregiver 17.50 an hour, whereas it would be $10.50 if Shane were under age 19. She noted that unionized Community Living B.C. workers who care for her son in a day program are only paid $15 an hour.
Madsen said the Tory changes have also driven more Filipinas into the black market. Shane’s caregiver has three friends working illegally in Vancouver in exploitative conditions, working 16 hours a day, seven days a week, for $10.50 an hour.
“The government knows about this and they’re not doing anything about it. It’s not right.”
The Tory changes, combined with the oil price slump, have resulted in the number of TFW approvals falling from just under 200,000 in 2012 to a little over 90,000 last year, according to government officials appearing earlier this year before the Human Resources committee.
Of that group, just 15,000 were for low-wage jobs, 22,000 for high-wage positions and the remaining 53,000 for a special program for the agriculture sector.
Among B.C. witnesses appearing before a parliamentary committee hearing this spring were Lululemon, the City of Vancouver on behalf of the city’s high-tech sector, and the Whistler Chamber of Commerce. They called for looser rules so they could recruit suitable overseas workers.
All said they need a more flexible program to fill a growing list of vacancies.
Chamber President Val Litwin said Whistler is particularly disadvantaged because it’s considered within the Lower Mainland region, which has an unemployment rate above six per cent. That means Whistler can’t get special dispensation under the 2014 reforms to hire foreign workers, even though its jobless rate is under two per cent.
Meanwhile, labour groups argue against a loosening of rules, saying that employers should instead boost wages and training.
Litwin, hower, said Whistler has already taken those steps.
“Despite our efforts on wage increases, Canadian recruitment and innovative housing practices, we have concerns that our inability to find Canadians is damaging our ability to maximize business opportunities,” he told the committee in May.
B.C. Conservative MP Bob Zimmer, vice-chairman of the committee studying the issue, said federal policy should ensure Canadians get the first opportunity at available jobs.
But he said the evidence shows there are many jobs “Canadians simply not applying for,” necessitating greater access to TFWs.
“Not many Canadians want to pick berries in the Fraser Valley.”
Some groups have called for an end to the requirement that TFWs work only a maximum of four years before being forced to return to their home country.
Those same advocates have argued that TFWs need a path to permanent residence status.
That ability to remain in Canada will reduce the leverage unscrupulous employers currently have over TFWs, thus reducing abuses and exploitation.
Zimmer said he’s concerned, though, that such a change could lead to an additional clogging up of an already-overburdened immigrant processing system.
And he warned that the attraction of permanent residency could be an incentive for scammers who charge foreigners thousands of dollars to obtain a LMIA for a minimum-wage job.
Jock Finlayson, chief policy officer for the B.C. Business Council, urged a cautious approach that loosens some restrictions but doesn’t reopen the TFW floodgates.
“There is not a strong case for enabling the retail and restaurant industries in urban areas to rely on TWFs to fill an ever-growing share of front-line service jobs, for example,” he said in an e-mail.
“But the situation is different when one looks at seasonal industries (agriculture, ski resorts), jobs in remote areas, and skilled occupations where there simply isn’t a sufficient supply of Canadian labour with the requisite qualifications.”
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