Summer of foreign workers?

Are you an employer keen to hire help from abroad, but nervous about the controversy dogging Ottawa’s temporary foreign worker program?

OTTAWA — Are you an employer keen to hire help from abroad, but nervous about the controversy dogging Ottawa’s temporary foreign worker program?

The government of Canada may have a solution for you.

Under the International Experience Canada program, as many as 20,000 workers aged 18 to 35 will soon be coming to Canada — just as Canadian youth begin pounding the pavement in search of summer jobs.

The program allows employers to bypass the labour market opinion process, which means there’s no need for government approval. As well, companies are not obliged to pay their workers the prevailing market wage.

The influx follows a spirited campaign by the government to attract skilled workers from abroad, including a 2012 trip to Ireland by Jason Kenney, then the immigration minister, to encourage Irish skilled workers to come to Canada.

More than half of those arriving on IEC visas are Irish and some are staying for as long as two years. The top countries of participation are France, Ireland, Australia, the UK, Germany, Japan, Korea and New Zealand.

“Make your dream of travelling and working abroad a reality! International Experience Canada gives you the information and resources you need to travel and work in Canada,” beckons the promotional material on the government of Canada website.

In exchange, Canadians can apply to work in 32 participating countries that also include Ukraine, Slovenia and Slovakia. Government data, however, indicates that more than three times as many foreigners come to Canada under the program than the other way around.

Doug Parton of the Ironworkers union in B.C. has called on the government to crack down on the IEC, saying there are no skills assessments of the incoming workers and no requirement that companies pay workers the prevailing wage rate.

“It’s a complete free-for-all and it’s an attack on wages,” said Parton, the business agent for Ironworkers Local 97, which represents structural and reinforcing ironworkers in British Columbia.

Parton claims mines in B.C. are taking advantage of the program to bring in non-Canadian workers with none of the “checks and balances” ostensibly in place under the broader temporary foreign worker program.

One company in particular, Parton said, has been routinely bringing over dozens of temporary foreign workers under the program for more than a decade and paying them $13 an hour while providing no training whatsoever or apprenticeship opportunities to domestic workers.

“There’s been no commitment to our young Canadian workers; doors are getting slammed shut on them because companies are bringing in cheaper workers from other countries,” he said.

“No one’s anti-immigration — that’s not what this is about — it’s about making sure Canadian workers aren’t squeezed out of jobs by abusers of these programs.”

Alexis Pavlich, a spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, defended the program, which has existed since 1951.

“The IEC is a long-standing and popular program that enables limited numbers of young Canadians and foreign nationals to participate in a travel, live and work abroad cultural and economic exchange program,” Pavlich said in an email.

“Past program participants with in-demand skills and relevant experience may apply to immigrate to Canada. Our government’s priority will always be to ensure Canadians are given first crack at available jobs.”

She added the program is under review, along with the broader temporary foreign worker program, “to ensure that it meets Canada’s needs and interests.”

Liberal MP John McCallum, the party’s immigration critic, expressed dismay.

“It sounds like such a wholesome thing on the government’s website — people coming to discover Canada and Canadians going abroad to do the same,” he said in an interview.

“But this is a huge concern because it seems to totally subvert what they’re trying to do with temporary foreign workers. The government appears to be actively encouraging companies to participate in a program that doesn’t even require labour market opinions.”

He accused the Tories of startling inconsistency.

“On the one hand they’re saying, ’Do whatever you want,’ and on the other hand they’re saying, ’We have a moratorium.’ That’s not exactly speaking with one voice.”

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