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The Globe and Mail
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Provinces complain of unenforceable labour laws because of missing information
Canada's Labour Minister is pledging to consider further changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, with her provincial counterparts saying the revised system still leaves them in the dark over many details.
Labour Minister Kellie Leitch met with provincial ministers Thursday and Friday in Saskatoon, six weeks after changes to the TFW program came into effect. The program allows employers to bring in foreign staff for up to four years if they can't find Canadian labour.
However, provinces say the federal government isn't sharing detailed information about the workers. It means that provincial workplace safety inspectors can't proactively enforce labour laws, because they don't know who the workers are or where they're working.
"It's for us to know where these workers are, so that we can make sure their rights are being protected," Ontario Labour Minister Yasir Naqvi said, adding the province had been pushing for more information for four years.
"I'm a bit disappointed that the changes, the modernization they're bringing to the program, does not include information sharing," he said.
It was a request echoed by several ministers, and Dr. Leitch said she would push to improve information sharing, saying privacy issues are among the barriers.
"I'll undertake to make sure we find out what some of the challenges have been of that sharing of information," she said, adding the federal government wants to "share as much information as possible with our counterparts so we can create safe workplaces."
The TFW changes took effect July 31, introducing an application fee and a requirement that employers advertise the job in Canada for a longer period. The changes were sparked by reports a year ago that a B.C. mine project hoped to bring in 200 Chinese workers, raising concerns that the program was costing Canadians jobs. "We've been very clear. Canadians come first for available jobs," Dr. Leitch said.
Government figures show 192,000 temporary foreign workers entered Canada in 2011. The program is popular in booming Alberta and Saskatchewan, where the governments had expressed concern that program changes could choke off a critical labour supply.
"In Alberta, we have a lot of employers who need TFWs. How do they comply appropriately with the need to ensure they've done everything they can to hire a Canadian worker, but have a streamlined process so they can have access to the workers they need on a timely basis?" Alberta Human Services Minister Dave Hancock said, adding provinces need to "constantly" review the TFW program.
Saskatchewan has an acute need for skilled labour and is looking at "everything we can do" to fast-track the application process in cases where Canadian labour isn't available, said Don Morgan, Saskatchewan's Minister of Labour Relations and Workplace Safety who hosted the ministers' meeting. The lack of information remains a concern. "We worry about the workers being taken advantage of. These are the ones that are vulnerable," he said.
The labour ministers' meeting was the first for Dr. Leitch, who took over the ministry in July. The ministers discussed workplace mental health, pension reform, workplace safety and the Wage Earner Protection Program, which some want overhauled to close loopholes that short-change workers when their employers declare bankruptcy outside Canadian borders.
"We are all working towards safe, fair and constructive workplaces. Nothing will grow the Canadian economy more than making sure that we are all focused on not just the creation of jobs, but also making sure that everyone who is working in Canada has a safe, fair and productive workplace," Dr. Leitch said.
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